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Foreign language trademarks in China must be distinctive or risk legal complications

In recent years, China has become an increasingly attractive market for foreign companies seeking to expand their global footprint. However, one critical aspect that often goes underestimated is the importance of selecting an appropriate foreign language trademark that aligns with Chinese cultural and linguistic nuances. Failure to do so may result in rejection by Chinese authorities due to a lack of distinctiveness, leading to legal complications and potential consequences for the entering company. 

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When entering the Chinese market, many foreign companies opt to retain their original foreign language trademarks, believing it to be a seamless transition. However, China's trademark registration system places significant emphasis on distinctiveness. If the foreign language trademark is not distinctive in the eyes of Chinese authorities, it may be subject to rejection. 

According to Chinese regulations, when the disputed trademark is in a foreign language, the court shall examine and judge whether the foreign language trademark has distinctive features based on the usual understanding of the relevant public in China.  

The inherent meaning of the foreign language in the mark may affect its distinctive features on the designated goods, but the degree of recognition of this inherent meaning by the relevant public is low, and thus if the mark can be used to identify the source of goods, it can be considered to have distinctive features. 

Common Pitfalls in Foreign Language Trademarks 

Several common pitfalls contribute to the rejection of foreign language trademarks in China. One such case is that of the global technology giant, TechX, which faced legal issues in China due to the lack of distinctiveness in its foreign language trademark. 

TechX entered the Chinese market with its original English language trademark, "Connectify." While the term was unique in English, its translation into Chinese could roughly be "Connected Technology." Unfortunately, the translated term lacked distinctiveness in the Chinese technology sector, where similar expressions were commonly used. 

The lack of distinctiveness in the chosen foreign language trademark led to a rejection of TechX's trademark application by Chinese authorities. This not only hindered the company's ability to establish a strong brand presence but also opened the door to potential legal challenges. 

When foreign companies choose trademarks that are too similar to existing Chinese trademarks or common expressions, it further diminishes their distinctiveness. This lack of uniqueness not only hampers the company's ability to stand out in the market but can also result in legal challenges from existing trademark holders. 

Legal Implications  

The rejection of TechX's trademark application in China carried significant legal implications and consequences for the company. 

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Inability to Establish Brand Presence: TechX found itself unable to establish a distinctive brand presence in the Chinese market. This resulted in challenges in differentiating its products from local and international competitors, affecting market penetration and consumer recognition. Trademark Squatting: Following the rejection, opportunistic entities attempted to register trademarks similar to "Connectify," leading to instances of trademark squatting. This not only complicated TechX's legal position but also posed a risk of diluting the brand. 

Increased Legal Costs: Challenging the rejected trademark application and addressing potential trademark infringement issues incurred substantial legal costs for TechX. The unexpected legal hurdles strained the company's resources and necessitated a reevaluation of its China market entry strategy. 

Trademark Registration Strategies 

To avoid the pitfalls faced by TechX, entering companies should consider the following strategies: 

  • Conduct Thorough Trademark Searches: Before settling on a foreign language trademark, conduct comprehensive searches to ensure its distinctiveness and absence of conflicts with existing trademarks in China. 

  • Consult Local Experts: Engage legal professionals or trademark experts in China who possess a deep understanding of the local language, culture, and legal landscape. Their insights can prove invaluable in crafting a trademark strategy that aligns with Chinese regulatory requirements. 

  • Adapt to Local Linguistic Nuances: Ensure that the chosen foreign language trademark resonates with Chinese consumers by adapting it to local linguistic nuances and cultural sensibilities. This not only enhances the distinctiveness but also facilitates better consumer engagement. 

  • Consider Coined Terms or Translations: When selecting foreign language trademarks, consider using coined terms or translations that retain their distinctiveness in Chinese. This approach minimizes the risk of rejection due to lack of distinctiveness. 

The case of TechX serves as a cautionary tale for foreign companies seeking to enter the Chinese market. Successfully navigating the complexities of the Chinese trademark landscape requires careful consideration of distinctiveness and adaptation to local linguistic and cultural nuances. By learning from such examples and employing a strategic approach to trademark selection, companies can establish a strong and distinctive brand presence in China, mitigating legal risks and unlocking the vast opportunities the market has to offer. 


Woodburn Accountants & Advisors is one of China’s most trusted business setup advisory firms.

Woodburn Accountants & Advisors is specialized in inbound investment to China and Hong Kong. We focus on eliminating the complexities of corporate services and compliance administration. We help clients with services ranging from trademark registration and company incorporation to the full outsourcing solution for accounting, tax, and human resource services. Our advisory services can be tailor-made based on the companies’ objectives, goals and needs which vary depending on the stage they are at on their journey.


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