At the conclusion of a legal battle that began three years ago, China’s highest court has ruled against basketball king Michael Jordan by dismissing his trademark infringement case. Although Jordan and his legal team lost the case, Jordan considers his adversary, the Chinese company Qiaodan, the de facto loser. In the court’s ruling, which seems backwards according to many United States trademark attorneys, Jordan essentially lost the rights to his own name.
Basketball is extremely popular in China and Michael Jordan is by far the most popular player. “Qiaodan” is the Mandarin transliteration of “Jordan” and has been used to refer to the former NBA star in China since the 1980s. Despite the company calling itself Qiaodan, the court held that “‘Jordan’” is not the only possible reference for ‘Qiaodan’ in the trademark under dispute. In addition, ‘Jordan’ is a common surname used by Americans.” Essentially, the current evidence did not persuade the court that “Qiaodan” determinedly is synonymous with Michael Jordan.
It may make sense that the name Jordan by itself cannot be trademarked. However, when the Qiaodan company sells sports products, especially basketball products including jerseys, shoes and other merchandise, and uses the number 23 and uses an eerily similar version of Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman” mark, it would seem that Michael Jordan and, in turn, Nike trademarks, are improperly being used.
When Jordan, whose personal brand Air Jordan is a division of Nike, demanded the imitator deregister the name in China, Qiaodan Sports instead hit back, giving an incredibly far-fetched explanation for their brand name. Apparently, the Chinese courts bought it. China is known for its rampant counterfeiting and the country is constantly criticized by other countries over little protection of intellectual property rights, including trademarks.
Although Qiaodan won the lawsuit, it definitely suffered in the lengthy legal battle. In 2012, the sportswear company had more than 5,700 stores in China and brought in $276 million in revenue. It was also preparing an Initial Public Offering (“IPO”) in the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Because of its legal troubles, the IPO has been hampered for three years and Qiaodan Sports is now known as a major knockoff, both abroad and in China.
Sports commentator Fang Zhengyu reported that “even if he lost one case after another, as long as he prevented Qiaodan Sports from rising further, Michael Jordan can consider his opponent the de facto loser.” And Jordan himself is not doing too bad either. In 2014, the Jordan Brand made $2.6 billion in U.S. shoe sales alone, and the star earned over $100 million from sponsorship deals.