American sports footwear and apparel brand New Balance has won a major unfair competition lawsuit in China, ending a 16-year battle against one of the country’s most prolific copycat brands.

On 16 April the Shanghai Pudong People’s Court found New Barlun (China) Co guilty of unfairly using an “N” symbol closely resembling the internationally recognized New Balance logo. The Court ruled that New Barlun’s use of the letter “N” would mislead consumers and ordered the company to pay damages of RMB 10.8 million (USD $1.54 million).

New Barlun has been one of the most consistent and successful copycat brands operating in China for nearly two decades, generating significant revenue from imitating New Balance footwear and its stylized letter “N”.

The case highlights the constantly evolving tactics used in China by infringers seeking to circumvent the claims and protections of legitimate rights holders, moving from straightforward copying to defending themselves by registering their own trademarks. This is an area of law that is unsettled in civil law systems and has set a new precedent in China. In finding in New Balance’s favor, the Court has now established the boundary line between prior decoration right and registered trademarks.

Angela Shi, Senior Brand Protection Manager at New Balance, commented:

“Despite the sophisticated tactics of the infringer, the Court has fairly enforced the legitimate rights of New Balance and in doing so, protected consumers’ interests.”

New Balance’s litigation counsel was Chinese law firm Lusheng, part of the Rouse network. Douglas Clark, Global Head of Dispute Resolution at Rouse, adds:

“Copycats have been the bane of international brands in China for years. The court has now made it clear free-riding will no longer be tolerated. This ruling brings confidence to every international IP rights holder seeking to operate in China. The outcome is the right one for both New Balance and for the protecting of IP rights in China more widely”.

Lusheng China

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