China’s Tsinghua University sues online course provider in IP spat
As China seeks to improve protection to intellectual property, domestic enterprises are in the litigious hot seat, often over trademarks of well-known international brands that have yet to gain a foothold in the local market. In recent years, beloved names such as Lego and Peppa Pig have been embroiled in such disputes, but Chinese firms and organizations are increasingly making up the bulk of the complainants.
Although it's common to see enterprises protecting their brands, domestic universities are also coddling their reputation. Top-tier Tsinghua University is the latest academic institution to take to the courts, filing a suit against entrepreneurs that have been selling online MBA classes using its trademark. The university is known nationwide for its STEM and finance programs.
The advertisement for the classes claim that one can take 100 sessions of a Tsinghua MBA course for 99 yuan (about 15 U.S. dollars). The instructor is surnamed Lu, who is described in the ad as an angel investor and an international MBA graduate of MIT.
What's also notable is that the ad appeared on a subsidiary platform under the Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media, an influential broadcaster in China.
The trial will begin in a Beijing district court on Monday, with Tsinghua University as the plaintiff and Lu and the Phoenix subsidiary as the defendants.
IP in a globalized world
Chinese regulators aim to improve the environment for foreign enterprises doing business in the country. Moreover, strengthening IP laws and regulations is part of China's efforts to become a global leader in science and technology as well as in its transition to a service-based economy, both of which it considers vital to continued national prosperity.
China began considering IP protection in earnest soon after the country's reform and opening-up. It joined the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1980, and promulgated a trademark law in 1982. Legislators have amended the law three times since then, most recently in 2014. The amendments were intended to streamline the application process and crack down on trademark infringements, a nontrivial pursuit as China processes the largest number of trademark applications in the world.
The controversial practice of “trademark squatting” is often the subject of IP legal disputes. Squatters file for trademarks similar to those of well-known brands, so that they can sell them at high prices to foreign companies when the latter enter the Chinese market. Some squatters file hundreds or even thousands of similar trademarks each, while prosecution in these infringement cases can take over a year.
Meanwhile, authorities in the country are already working on the next
amendment to the trademark law, calling for public comments last year for the upcoming revision.