In a promising sign that commitments regarding the protection of IP made by Beijing to the US during recent trade deal talks may actually be acted upon, the Chinese Supreme Court has upheld a long-running complaint by legendary US basketball player Michael Jordan against a Chinese company that has been using the Chinese translation of Jordan’s name (“Qiao Dan”) on a range of sportswear. Despite securing, in 2016, the rights to the use of his name as represented by Chinese characters, rights to Romanised English versions and variations of Jordan’s name have proven far more difficult to secure and enforce.

Sports brand Qiadan Sports, based in Fujian province, has almost 6,000 retail stores across China and has been in dispute with Jordan for almost a decade. Previous decisions in the Chinese courts found in favor of Qiadan, but this new Supreme Court ruling overturns two of them. However, in a frustrating result for Jordan, who played 15 seasons in the NBA and won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, the Supreme Court decision does not prevent Qiadan from using a logo of a basketball player in silhouette which bears more than a passing resemblance to an image that US sports giant Nike used extensively to promote its “Air Jordan” sneakers. Instead, the Supreme Court instructed the Chinese State Intellectual Property Office to reconsider Qiadan’s continued use of the disputed logo.

In a statement issued on Chinese microblogging website Weibo, Qiadan Sports said that the Supreme Court’s latest decision “would not impact the normal use of [Qiadan’s] existing trademarks, nor would it affect normal business operations”.

Nonetheless, with China under sustained pressure from the US and elsewhere to take serious action to promote and protect IP, this high-profile case, involving a celebrity beloved in both China and the US, seems set to be only the first of a series of resolve-testing decisions for the Chinese authorities.

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