Jordan’s Last Dance in Trademark Dispute Scores Big in Chinese Top Court
In a prelude to the airing of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” miniseries, a behind-the-scenes look at Michael “Air” Jordan (“Jordan” or “MJ”) and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s top court, ruled in favor of Jordan and sounded the buzzer on a long-running dispute with Chinese company Qiaodan Sports (“Qiaodan”) over the unauthorized use of his name in its trademarks.
“The Last Dance” miniseries has allowed sports fans and sneaker aficionados to relive moments of unparalleled basketball greatness and learn more about the on- and off-the-court moments that defined Jordan. Jordan’s basketball and sports branding prowess have also been the focal point of a trademark dispute with Qiaodan regarding the use of his name and the recognizable ‘Jumpman’ logo in Qiaodan`s sporting goods and related marketing.
This decision by the Chinese High Court in March 2020 represents the culmination of nearly a decade of litigation in China as Jordan battled away from his home court and attempted to weave around an unfamiliar foreign IP system and legal defense. Jordan first filed suit in 2012 to invalidate Qiaodan’s trademarks that used versions of his name and put a stop to Qiaodan`s attempts to profit off of his fame. We last recounted the dispute between Jordan and Qiaodan in the December 2016 Edition of Three Point Shot when the Supreme People’s Court of China partially reversed a lower court decision and invalidated Qiaodan’s registration of the Chinese version of Jordan’s name. The Court there, however, did not invalidate registrations that used the transliteration or pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation) version of Jordan’s last name, “Qiaodan.” At the time, the Court concluded Qiaodan was not an exact translation of MJ`s name and could refer to anyone with the common surname “Jordan” and that consumers were not confused because Nike’s Jordan Company and Qiaodan had their own distinguished markets.
The principal trademark at issue using Jordan’s name and silhouette was filed by Qiaodan in 2007 and approved in 2010, the so-called “Jordan and Figure” mark (see image below).
MJ claimed, among other things, that when the Chinese public sees a version of his name, "Qiaodan," alongside a silhouette that resembles the Nike Air Jordan Jumpman sneaker logo in reference to sporting goods, it will wrongly associate Qiaodan Sports with his famous name. Jordan alleged various claims under Chinese law, including most notably trademark claims and infringement of his right of publicity, which was broken down into two separate claims. In the first, MJ claimed that Qiaodan violated his “prior name right” under Chinese law from Qiaodan’s registration and use of his name. Secondly, Jordan claimed that Qiaodan violated his “portrait right” under Chinese law for misappropriating the “Jumpman” logo in its trademarked logos. In April 2014, the Chinese Trademark Review and Adjudication Board rejected Jordan’s attempt to invalidate Qiaodan’s trademarks. And so began years of appeals, leading to the ruling this past March by China’s top court.
In its most recent decision, China’s High Court found that the evidence on which the prior courts had based their judgment – mainly that “the two sides [Jordan Company and Qiaodan] had formed their own consumer groups and markets respectively” – was inaccurate. New evidence provided Jordan the rebound necessary to drive the lane and levitate to an air-defying dunk. Findings from an online investigation supported Jordan’s claim that he was well-known to the Chinese public by the name “Qiaodan” well before the date of Qiaodan’s disputed trademark application.
According to the Court, the findings showed that when articles published from 1984-2012 in newspapers, periodicals, and websites in China, as well as books, referenced the six-time champ, MJ was most commonly referred to by his surname only, “Jordan,” or as “Flying Man, or “Flying Man Jordan.” This new evidence was helpful for the High Court to consider whether Qiaodan violated Jordan’s “prior name right.”
As the High Court explained, under applicable Chinese law, “unauthorized registration of a name with another person’s prior name right as a trademark may easily lead the relevant public to mistakenly believe that the goods or services marked with the trademark have a specific endorsement, permission, etc., that is related to the natural person.” Applying the law, the High Court overturned the prior court’s determination that the name “Jordan,” or in pinyin “Qiaodan,” did not specifically refer to MJ. Ultimately, the High Court found that Qiaodan Sports had violated MJ’s “prior name right” and it invalidated the disputed Qiaodan Sports mark: “[Qiaodan Sports] knows that [Michael Jordan] has a long-term and widespread reputation in China, and still uses "Jordan" to apply for the registration of the disputed trademark, which may easily lead the relevant public to mistakenly believe that the goods marked with the disputed trademark have specific endorsements, licenses and other specific links with the retrial applicant, which damages the prior name right of [Michael Jordan].”
While Jordan scored big regarding use of his name, the victory was not a complete sweep. Jordan may have prevailed on the right of publicity issue surrounding his name, but the High Court refused to call a foul on Qiaodan for its continued use of the Qiaodan logo of a silhouetted basketball player, which MJ argued bears striking similarities to the Jumpman logo used by Nike in Air Jordan sneakers. The High Court noted that whether the registration of the disputed trademark damaged Jordan’s “portrait right” depended on the logo at issue and whether it was “recognizable” and “refers to a natural person.” In declining to overturn prior rulings on Jordan’s “portrait right” claim, the High Court determined that the Qiaodan logo did not have identifiable personal features such that it could be said to form the “personal dignity or personal interests of the specific natural person that should be protected on the logo according to law.” The Court concluded that the logo was just a dark silhouette and does not contain “any personal characteristics” related to Jordan. Aside from the resemblance to the Air Jordan “Jumpman,” many basketball fans might say that Jordan’s nicknames – “Air Jordan” and “His Airness” – suggest that the silhouetted basketball player is unmistakably Jordanesque. [Of course, this is not the first time the Jumpman logo has been at issue in an IP dispute – see the May 2018 edition of Three Point Shot]. Thus, unlike MJ’s sixth and final championship, Jordan’s trademark victory was not to be – though in fairness, during the Bulls’ dynasty when it won six championships in the 1990s, the team did not win every game in the Finals against its opponents (and was in fact taken to six games in five out of six series in the Finals).
For now, it seems as though this High Court proceeding is the last dance between Jordan and Qiaodan. Importantly, the ruling provides a precedent for other well-known athletes to stand on to ensure that the right to the use of their name and brand in China is afforded protection.