December 7, 2011 1:37 pm

Apple loses iPad trademark case in China

Apple could face disruption to its iPad sales in China after a court rejected its claim to own the iPad trademark in the country and a rival sought to halt sales of the tablet device in two Chinese cities.

The developments are the latest in a long-running dispute between Apple and Proview Technology (Shenzhen), a struggling Taiwanese-owned company that registered trademarks for the name IPAD in many countries long before Apple conceived its smash hit tablet computer.

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Normally, Apple is on the receiving end of intellectual property rights infringements in China, with counterfeits extending even to copies of its flagship stores. The US company has nonetheless reported soaring sales over the past three quarters, following a push started last year under which it has so far built four Apple stores in Beijing and Shanghai and 1,000 resellers across the country.

“Apple is such a Goliath and has a good image, so people wouldn’t imagine that Apple could possibly infringe on our intellectual property rights,” said Xiao Caiyuan, a lawyer for Proview at Guangdong Guanghe law firm. “People always think it’s small companies infringing upon large companies’ IPR.”

“We hope that this decision will make our negotiations with Apple a bit easier,” said Li Su, a representative of Proview.

Proview, a flatscreen contract manufacturer, made an unsuccessful attempt to sell a tablet computer in 2000, and registered trademarks for the IPAD name in the EU, China, Mexico, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam between 2000 and 2004, according to trademark databases.

In 2006, Proview Electronics (Taiwan) agreed to sell Apple the “global trademark” for the IPAD name for £35,000, according to Proview, but the two companies have subsequently disagreed about whether that deal included China.

Apple applied to have ownership of the two relevant Chinese trademarks transferred to its name before it began selling the iPad in China early last year. The Chinese trademark office rejected the application because the trademarks are owned by Proview Technology (Shenzhen), another affiliate of Proview International, the group’s Hong Kong-listed holding company, and not the Taiwan unit.

Apple then sued Proview Technology (Shenzhen), asking the court to declare the US company the rightful owner of the IPAD trademarks in China. The Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court rejected that request earlier this week in a ruling that Apple can appeal.

At the same time, Proview Technology (Shenzhen) has sued Apple resellers in the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Huizhou, seeking an immediate block on sales of iPads. The Shenzhen Futian District Court is due to start hearing one case on December 30, and the Huizhou Intermediate People’s Court has scheduled a hearing in the other for January 7.

“We are starting with these two cities, and if we are successful in getting iPad sales stopped, we will consider going after Apple resellers elsewhere in China,” said Xie Xianghui, a lawyer with Grandall, another Chinese law firm working for Proview. Apple declined to comment.

The China trademark lawsuit comes at a time when Apple is engaged in a number of patent battles globally against Samsung Electronics and HTC, two other smartphone makers. Those cases, which span markets including the US, Germany and Australia, have so far mostly been decided in favour of Apple.

Additional reporting by Chen Yuanni in Beijing and Robin Kwong in Taipei

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