All things you need to know about how to register a trademark in China
The Importance of Registering a Trademark in China Applying for a trademark is a crucial and important step that’s often ignored or overlooked by exporters.
China is a “first-to-file” country which means that the person who registers a trademark for a product, will also have all exclusive rights to distribute and sell the product.
Ecommerce Sites and Distributors Require Trademark Registrations
Not only do many Chinese e-commerce websites require that you register your trademark overseas (and in China). If you plan to sell via a local distributor, they will request you upfront to register your trademark, before any trading takes place.
Why is that?
Because you can’t license your products to a distributor without having your trademark (brand) registered in China.
You should also be careful with distributors who insist to register your trademark for you, might it be out of goodwill, or not.
Worth mentioning is that you won’t have anything to say in case a Chinese individual decides to sell your products, without your consent. How can you prove that someone has infringed on your brand when it’s not even registered?
You can’t claim something that can’t be demonstrated to be yours.
In China, there’s a word called “trademark squatters” for persons who try to register others’ trademarks for the sole purpose of earning money or to make things harder for you.
It can be everything from a competitor who wants to reduce your chances of making profits in China, to persons who file many trademarks to sell these later.
Sadly, some exporters simply have to pay the fee required (sometimes stretching up to USD 250,000) to get “back” the trademark (also called bad-faith registrations).
Not only do smaller and medium-sized brands come across trademark squatters, but also big brands. As late as 2018, Ralph Lauren managed to resolve a dispute with local sellers of products that looked similar to Ralph Lauren’s.
The Process when Registering a Trademark in China
Registering a trademark takes a longer time than most exporters can imagine. When you apply to register for a trademark in China, you normally need to go through the following steps:
First of all, you need to check if the trademark is registered or not (more about how you can check that later in this article)
Submit the application form and other relevant documents. In China, SAIC (State Administration for Industry and Commerce) is responsible to handle the applications of trademarks
SAIC reviews the application and confirms whether you can proceed or if complementaries are needed
SAIC starts a thoroughgoing process to register the trademark (normally takes 1 year)
Approves and issues the trademark (takes generally 2 months when the above process has finished)
You receive a certificate of approval (normally takes 2 additional months)
Registering a trademark is nothing you do quickly. It’s a lengthy process that should be started well in advance and before you enter the Chinese market.
How long time does it take?
The process can take everything from 12 to 16 months, depending on how if any issues occur during the registration process.
But the Chinese government works actively trying to reduce the processing time.
How much does it cost to register a trademark in China?
First of all, you generally need to pay two different parties when registering a trademark:
Trademark check-up fee: around USD 120
Registration fee of the trademark for 1 class and 10 sub-categories: around USD 1000 (including fees for the services provided by the lawyer)
Government fees land at around 100 USD, but these fees are normally included in the complete service package provided by trademark agencies
If you’re willing to take on the Chinese market, registration of a trademark shouldn’t be seen as something you can neglect, risking that your products can’t be salable in China.
Can foreign companies register trademarks in China?
Yes, foreigners typically don’t have any issues to register their trademarks in China unless the trademark is already registered by someone else. In fact, if you’re a non-resident in China, or have a foreign company, you need to seek help from a trademark agency. The application is made through China’s national registration system, also called CTMO (more about CTMO later in this article).
For how long is my trademark registration valid?
National trademark registration and international trademark registration are both valid for 10 years. You need to apply for a renewal at least 6 months before expiration, it will then be renewed for an additional 10 years. Keep in mind that if you don’t use the products for commercial purposes within a period of 3 years, you might lose the trademark.
What happens if I don’t renew the trademark registration in time?
If you don’t renew your trademark registration in time, it will be canceled. It’s important that you keep track of when your trademark will expire and renew it at least 6 months in advance.
What happens if I get refused to use the trademark?
If you’re refused to use the trademark for some reason, your trademark agency needs to contact TRAB (Trademark Review and Adjudication board) and submit an opposition.
TRAB will handle the opposition during a time period of 9-12 months.
Generally speaking, you’ll work with a trademark registration agency that helps you with the registration. They should help you if any disputes arise.
Should I register my trademark if I only produce my products in China?
Yes, you should register your products in China if they are produced and exported overseas.
The reason is that you might come across issues domestically, such as with your export agent or manufacturer, if the trademark is not registered locally.
Can I use a foreign trademark agency for my registration in China?
No, if you’re not a resident in China or have a foreign company, you need to let a Chinese trademark agency handle the application for you.
While an international registration requires that you make the application in English, French, or Spanish, a national registration in China requires that the application is written in Chinese.
How should I name my Chinese trademark?
You must choose a Chinese trademark that translates well and sounds good.
Ralph Lauren is a brand that decided to not register a Chinese trademark, which resulted in that the Chinese public came up with a name themselves: San Jiao Ma, which means ‘three-legged horse’.
Once it’s out there, it’s difficult to change.
In total, you have two options to choose from when choosing a trademark in Chinese. If you’re lucky, you might be able to use a combination of the two:
Phonetic translations mean that you compose characters in a way to make the Chinese name sound similar to the English name.
Some foreign companies are lucky when coming up with phonetic names, as the name itself means something positive in the Chinese language.
For example, Coca Cola is translated as ‘Ke Kou Ke Le’, which doesn’t only sound similar to the English name, but also means “Very tasty and happy”.
Many car brands have phonetic translations. This includes Rolls Royce, translated as ‘Láo sī lái sī’, and Ferrari which’s translated as ‘Fǎlālì’.
Other examples include:
Volvo – Wò’ērwò
Benz – Bēnchí
Harley Davidson – Hāléi dàiwéisēn
Audi – Àodí
Lamborghini – Lánbójīní
Chrysler – Kèláisīlēi
This simply means that you choose a Chinese name that’s corresponding well to your English brand in written text, but not when it’s pronounced, nor does it have an extravagance meaning.
For example, Microsoft is translated into Wei Ruan in China, which simply means: Microsoft. However, it doesn’t bring any attributes to the positive things about the company or have similarities with the pronunciation.
Another example is Apple, which is translated into Pingguo which means ‘apple’ in Chinese.
Be sure to work with a native Chinese speaker who specializes in local marketing or PR. They can help you in the process to come up with a Chinese name that suits your brand.
Are Hong Kong trademarks valid in Mainland China?
Even if the UK transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997, you can’t use your Chinese trademark in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government claims Hong Kong’s relation with China to be under a “one country, two systems” structure, something that’s applicable for the legal system, also covering trademarks.
It’s also the other way around, which means that Hong Kong trademark registrations are not sufficient to use in mainland China. Instead, you have to make a separate trademark registration in mainland China.
Are US or EU trademarks valid in China?
EU-countries, China, and the United States are all parts of the so-called Madrid Protocol, covered by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization).
However, trademarks registered internationally under the Madrid Protocol, are not protected globally. Even if you have a registered trademark in Germany or France, doesn’t mean you’re protected in China.
You need to make a separate trademark registration in China with the help of either a local company or an international company such as iGerent.
Trademark Classes in China
Even if China and Europe use the same registration systems for the international classification of goods and services (covered under the Nice Agreement), China has unique subclasses that aren’t used in Europe.
You must confirm what classes (there are 45 of them) and subclasses should be used for your specific products. To be fully protected, you can use subclasses that have little relevance to your products as well.
An important point is that China has its regulations on trademark law, mainly because the Chinese language differs from the characters and tones used.
Keep in mind that:
The trademark should have uniqueness and be distinctive. It shouldn’t imply on the function of the product, all by the Trademark Law
The trademark should be grammatically correct and concise
The trademark should be delightful and not pounding
These are just examples of regulations and your trademark registration agent should confirm what else is needed.
Should I use an international or national trademark registration?
You can register your trademark with both international and national registrations.
The national applications are generally suitable for:
When you have a broader scope of products
You need a quicker registration process with early interaction
When you want to avoid alteration of trademarks to reduce refusal risk
International applications and registrations are suitable for non-standard goods descriptions that have to be kept, such as for 1) Specialized or new products or 2) If there’s a restriction description subject to a co-existence agreement.
How can I search for trademarks in China?
You can search for China registered trademarks on CTMO’s (China Trademark Office) official website. Services you can use on the website are:
Searching for similar trademarks
Get comprehensive information about different trademarks
The status of different trademark applications
Public announcements about new trademarks or regulations
With that said, most trademark registration agencies offer trademark searches and it won’t set you back more than a hundred US-dollars or so.
Many exporters know little about the importance of registering their trademark in China.
In fact, China is a first to file country, which means that if you don’t register your trademark in time, someone else might, and probably will, do it. In countries like Singapore, registering your trademark should be one of your first tasks.
The process to register for a trademark takes around 16-24 months, be sure to start the process well in advance. If you’re not resident in China or have a foreign company, you’re obliged to work with a local trademark agent who will help you to register the trademark.
The cost usually lands at a bit more than USD 1,000 but is negligible in comparison to the importance of registering your trademark.
Do you need to register a trademark in Mainland China?