Tsinghua University files lawsuits in bid to protect trademark

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Tsinghua University has filed trademark complaints against a raft of educational institutions based in East China's Jiangxi province, triggering increased discussion on protection for trademarks.

The university, one of the most prestigious schools in China, applied for a trademark for the traditional Chinese characters for "Tsinghua" in 1997. The application was approved the following year.

There are more than 400 companies and organizations which use "Tsinghua kindergarten" as their registered business names despite not being affiliated with the university, Beijing Youth Daily reported.

Of the so-called Tsinghua kindergartens, one located in Shicheng county, Jiangxi province, is involved in the trademark cases as a defendant.

The Ganzhou Intermediate People's Court in Jiangxi heard the case on May 8.

The Tsinghua trademark is very popular and has been recognized as a well-known trademark, according to the university.

The kindergarten has Tsinghua in its name and the unauthorized use of the trademark causes confusion, disrupting the market order and creating unfair competition, the university's attorney said.

In response, the kindergarten told the court that the word "Tsinghua" has existed since the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), and is widely used in China, such as there being a town called Tsinghua in Wuyuan county, Jiangxi province and a Tsinghua avenue in Shicheng county.

The defendant claimed that the plaintiff presented no evidence to prove that local residents would link the kindergarten with Tsinghua University which is located more than 1,000 kilometers away.

On the same day, the court also sat to hear another four trademark cases with the university as the plaintiff.

Among the defendants is another Tsinghua kindergarten in Zhanggong district of Ganzhou.

The kindergarten, which also includes the Chinese characters for Tsinghua in its name, misleads the public into believing that it has connections with Tsinghua University, the plaintiff said.

The unauthorized usage has violated the principle of good faith, constituted infringement and should be held liable, the university alleged.

The kindergarten said in court that the trademark applied by Tsinghua University in 1997 is the traditional Chinese version for "Tsinghua". However, the kindergarten in Zhanggong district was founded in 2004, when the university had not yet registered the trademark of the simplified Chinese character for "Tsinghua".

It added that though Tsinghua University enjoys a high reputation in higher education, it is not the case in early childhood education.

The kindergarten said that in addition to the "Tsinghua kindergarten" name, it also uses its own logo for promotion to distinguish itself from other market entities.

The plaintiff said that "Tsinghua" has an exclusive corresponding relationship with the university and the kindergarten's unauthorized use of the word would weaken that exclusive relationship and eventually destroy the commercial value of the Tsinghua trademark.

The university has filed many lawsuits in recent years to protect its Tsinghua trademark. The defendants include not only educational and training institutions, but also tech, cultural and healthcare companies.

In 2014, the university sued a high-tech company based in Foshan, Guangdong province, which focuses on research and development, production and sale of energy-saving water heaters, claiming the latter tagging the word "Tsinghua" on its products infringed on the trademark.

In May 2017, the Guangdong High People's Court ruled against the company, ordering it to stop the infringement and pay the university 500,000 yuan ($72,320) in damages.

"Colleges and universities have rights to their names. As for some noted universities, they do not have to apply for trademarks to safeguard their legal rights. They can protect their rights by initial legal procedures for violations of rights to their names and unfair competition," said Gao Quanlong, a lawyer at Z&T Law Firm.

If the defendant uses a trademark that is the same name as the university's, and both are in the field of education, the risk of infringement is greater, Gao added.

Yang Jing'an, a lawyer at a Beijing-based law firm, said that a university's registering its name and abbreviation as a trademark is an important defense against trademark squatting.

Compared with filing a lawsuit, trademark registration is more convenient, economical and effective, Yang noted, adding that it's more feasible to safeguard legal rights under the Trademark Law.

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