Wangzhihe Awaits Verdict in Germany

The final verdict in a lawsuit by three-century-old Chinese bean curd brand Wangzhihe against a German supermarket is due April 23.

According to Wolfgang Festl-Wietek, a lawyer for Wangzhihe, the dispute centers on whether OKAI, the supermarket that registered Wangzhihe's logo in Germany, is a competitor to the Chinese company, and whether Wangzhihe had marketing and sales activities in Germany.

The lawyer said he is confident of winning the lawsuit, as OKAI may produce and sell Wangzhihe bean curd as a peer and Wangzhihe has been selling and promoting its products in the European nation for several years.

Wang Jiahuai, general manager of Wangzhihe Food Group, indicated that the company must win the case, which has lasted over two years, to protect the intellectual property right of the brand with over 300 years of history.

"We should let people know that Chinese time-honored brands are integrating into the economic globalization and realizing the game rules in the international market, we cannot endure any action hurting or damaging our brands," said Wang.

With plans to expand overseas, Wang took a business trip to Germany in July 2006, where he found the trademark had been registered by OKAI on Nov 21, 2005. Wangzhihe then filed a lawsuit against OKAI in a Munich court in January 2007.

According to Wang Hongqing, intellectual property consultant for Wangzhihe, OKAI argued that the logo of Wangzhihe was "a common portrait of an ancient Chinese soldier" and its registration is lawful. OKAI has been selling products by Wangzhihe for some time and had applied unsuccessfully to act as Wangzhihe's general sales agency in Germany.

"It is impossible that it couldn't recognize the logo," the Chinese lawyer said, adding that the logo was designed by Huang Wei, professor with the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University, who has transferred the legal copyright to Wangzhihe.

The local court ruled the OKAI company should stop using the Wangzhihe trademark logo in Germany and the brand OKAI had registered there should be revoked.

OKAI appealed on Feb 25, 2008, and the lawsuit was heard in Munich on Jan 22 of this year.

According to Festl-Wietek, trademark infringement is common in foreign countries. His legal consulting firm had handled three similar lawsuits by Chinese companies.

Chinese enterprises should learn to protect their own brands and patents, he said, adding that timely registration is easier than going to court.

Statistics from the trade market office of State Administration for Industry and Commerce showed that over 2,000 trademarks of Chinese famous brands have been infringed by foreigners in overseas markets since the 1980s, resulting in intangible assets loss of about 1 billion yuan each year.

The overseas edition of People's Daily reported that OKAI has illegally registered another three well-known brands, Sichuan Baijia instant potato noodles, Laoganma spicy sauce and Qiaqia sunflower seeds.

In February 2007, Sichuan Baijia Food Co Ltd followed Wangzhihe in filing a trademark-infringement lawsuit against OKAI and won the case.

Wangzhihe's fermented bean curd is renowned for its flavor that is known to "smell strange and taste good".

Mainly used as seasoning or added to other dishes, it has been loved by Chinese for more than 300 years, and is now enticing many foreigners, who sometimes call it "Chinese cheese". The most common way of eating it is to place a slice between two pieces of a steamed bun (mantou) and eat it like a sandwich.

Thanks to China's opening up policy since 1978 and market-oriented reform of Chinese time-honored enterprises, Wangzhihe has become one of China's top seasoning industry groups, with annual turnover exceeding 300 million yuan, and is one of the pioneers among State-owned enterprises to access the global market.

The Wangzhihe brand has been registered in more than 40 countries and regions worldwide.

"Though the process is complicated, and we have met many difficulties and paid huge efforts, I believe it's worthy," said General Manager Wang, explaining that the lawsuit has helped the Chinese company understand business rules in Germany and Europe, and gather experience for operations in developed marketplaces.

The lawsuit didn't have a negative impact on Wangzhihe, said the general manager. "The production and sales both maintained double-digit growth in the last two years," he stressed.

Insiders said Wangzhihe also got an unexpected benefit - the promotion of its brand among German consumers. The trademark lawsuit attracted local attention and media coverage of not only Wangzhihe, but also other time-honored Chinese brands that have witnessed a surge recently.

(China Daily 04/13/2009 page11)