A long-drawn-out battle has been ensuing between tech giant Apple and a Chinese company you probably haven’t heard of — and it’s not looking good for Silicon Valley’s star child. Apple recently lost a trademark suit against Beijing’s Xintong Tiandi Technology, which has been selling leather goods like handbags, cell phone cases, and more with the brand name “IPHONE,” Quartz reported.
The trademark dispute between Apple and the local Chinese company began in 2012 as Apple fought to gain exclusive rights over the iPhone brand. The trademark authority in China as well as a lower Beijing court dismissed Apple’s claims. Apple appealed but on March 31st, The Beijing Municipal High People’s Court rejected the appeal, allowing Xintong Tiandi to keep selling its IPHONE products, local media Legal Daily reported.
Apple applied to trademark “IPHONE” in 2002, but the trademark wasn’t approved until 2013 under Class 9: Electrical and Scientific Apparatus. Five years after Apple’s application, in 2007 — around the time Apple was launching its first iPhone in the US — Xintong Tiandi applied for the same trademark. In 2010, their trademark was approved under Class 18: Leather goods.
Chinese authorities refused to revoke Xintong Tiandi’s trademark and argued that Apple’s iPhone was not prominent in the region when Xintong Tiandi submitted its application. Apple’s iPhone only arrived in the Chinese mainland market in 2009, so the Silicon Valley company could not prove that the “IPHONE” brand had high visibility before Xintong Tiandi entered the market space.
On its website, Xintong Tiandi seemed pleased with the decision and expressed a desire to work with Apple to further the iPhone brand. “We will also make full achievement of the ‘iphone’ trademark, and work together [with Apple] to benefit more iphone consumers,” Quartz translated from the Chinese website. Apple did not comment.
This isn’t the first time US brands have struggled for their rights in China and faced resistance. In 2015, Michael Jordan lost the fight against an alleged trademark violation by a company that used the Chinese translation of his last name, his jersey number, as well as Nike Air’s iconic “jumpman” logo on its products. More recently, Under Armour has threatened to sue Uncle Martian, a new Chinese sports company that plagiarized its logo.
Last year, Chinese Segway copycat company Ninebot actually ended up buying Segway and being sponsored by Xiaomi. However, sneaking their way into partnering for official Apple merchandise may not be a foolproof plan for Xintong Tiandi, considering Apple only works with a select few genuine partners.
Over the years, China has proven to be a rough sea for the tech giant. Back in 2012, Apple had to pay a Shenzhen tech company $60 million over the iPad name. Last year, it went as far as blocking its news app in the country to avoid displeasing the Chinese authorities.
China, however, remains a valuable market for Apple. Even though sales in mainland China fell 11 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year, Tim Cook is optimistic. In the last fiscal year, Apple earned $58 billion from China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan — more than all other foreign companies.