Just a few days ago, we wondered if "Apple's $60M iPad Deal Could Make China Trademark Nightmare Worse." Well, it's worse.
Apple has just been hit with not one but two new trademark lawsuits from Chinese companies. First, a company specializing in household chemicals named "Snow Leopard" has filed suit against Apple's "Snow Leopard" operating system.
Now, Siri is in trouble.
A "chatting robot system" is how the patent describes the technology of a 2004 trademark filed in China by Zhi Zhen Internet Technology, the company that filed for a ruling against Apple. Zhi Zhen claims that its patent, filed in 2004, covers the functionality of Siri.
The litigant that appears to have more of a case is Jiangsu Xuebao. “Xuebao" (雪豹) literally translates to "snow leopard." Shanghai Daily reported that Xuebao, which began registering the trademark for a wide variety of goods—including computer products—in 1994, has identified 104 violations by Apple. Apple released its Snow Leopard OS in 2009. And then there is this:
"[Xuebao Chairman] Tong said the company had developed a series of computer-related products under the trademark and accused Apple of making profits from its reputation in China."
Just because Xuebao is making some questionably bold statements and is better known as a brand of toothpaste and detergent doesn't mean it is in the wrong. The brand points out that Apple's application to trademark Xuebao was rejected in 2008. Further, Xuebao did not register the snow leopard mark with ill will or malicious intent.
Speaking of intent, it is noteworthy that while the Snow Leopard and Siri cases may be creative litigation solely in the name of a payoff, neither case is "trademark squatting," the phenomenon of registering an existing trademark in China's first-to-file system in the hopes of a later payoff for the "legitimate" mark owner. (Beijing IP/IT lawyer, professor and blogger, Stan Abrams, would like those reporting Apple's woes as "squatting" to cut it out immediately.)
To be fair, it's unlikely that Apple's Proview settlement directly led to these new lawsuits. Zhi Zhen claims that it picked up the Apple iPhone 4S back in April to test its functionality against its patent.
As for Xuebao's claims, a Chinanews.com report quotes an attorney from Jiangsu Hongrun Law Firm saying that the Class 9 trademark case is "difficult" because while the Chinese company owns both the Chinese language mark for “雪豹” as well as the phonetical "Xuebao" pinyin spelling, Apple China's official website "only uses the word 'Snow Leopard.'"
But Apple's recent settlement is certainly a precedent for both companies. Zhi Zhen's case against Siri did not specify damages. Xuebao's did though; it is seeking the 500,000 yuan (about $78,800).
Apple made $78,800 by the time it finished reading the first sentence of the grievance, so it would be easy to say the brand should just plop down the money and be done with it. But then what further message is it sending, that Apple is a fat goose ready to be plucked? Apple will have to decide by July 10, when it has its date in a court with Xuebao.
The lesson, folks — go check your China trademark status immediately.