Yao Ming has lost his trademark dispute with a company that the former Houston player felt was using his name to boost their profits. The issue was settled by China’s National Industry and Commerce Administration after nine years of arguing between the two parties. This means the company, Xiamen Yama Ribbons, will finally be the owners of the ‘Yao’ trademark. Yes, that was what the dispute was about, ribbons.
For Yao, this will come as a bit of a blow but it won’t be the first time that the Chinese icon has had to fill papers and threaten to see people in court. In 2011, he sued Wuhan Yunhe Sharks Sportswear Co. after the Hubei-based sportsware company launched a brand of ‘Yao Ming Era’ trainers without getting Yao’s permission (he was sponsored by Reebok at the time). Further back in 2003, Yao, who was signed up to promote Pepsi, also had to get tough with Coca Cola when the rival drinks company put his image on the front of all their products sold in China.
Things reached a comical low in 2006 when within six months of each other, enterprising Chinese businessmen attempted to use Yao’s name for a brand of condoms but also a range of sanitary towels. Both bids were dismissed by the Chinese Trademark Office immediately but the latter attempt was especially memorable when it emerged that the man making the application, Guangdongese villager Xiao Senwen, tried to give extra respectability to his claim by listing his local government building as his address. He was quickly busted when his local officials said they didn’t know anyone by that name.
Things now get a little complicated because I’m under the understanding that through Chinese law, Yao has up to five years to challenge the trademark ruling and have it revoked. Given that he is a prominent figure within Chinese society and an increasingly high-profile face of the country’s Communist Party, he should eventually get his way. For what its worth, Yao has had his name registered as a trademark in various forms for some time in the US, most recently in 2011 upon the launch of his own line of wine, called of course, ‘Yao Ming’ (interesting fact: at one point, his two-year old Cabernet Sauvignon was on sale for close to $300).
It’s also worth pointing out that copyright infringement is a daily issue in the US. Counterfeit goods probably add up to millions if not billions of RMB a year in China. Yao himself has to regularly deal with trademark disputes that relate to anything from cars to beer to metal pipes and children’s toys. Xiamen Yama Ribbons have won this battle but Yao’s lawyers will probably win the war.