Identical vs. Similar Trademarks in Criminal and Civil Adjudication

Both Judge Bao WenkJiong 包文炯 in Zhichanli, and James Luo on his blog, have recently  published  summaries of a 2014 case in Wuxi (无锡滨湖法院(2014)锡滨知刑初字第0002号刑事判决书) involving the definition an “identical” mark under China’s criminal trademark law.

This case raises the important question of the differing roles and standards for civil and criminal prosecution of trademark infringement – an issue that is especially important in light of the many different manners of enforcing IP in China, which also includes an extensive administrative punishment system.

Judge Bao noted that the court held that attention should be paid to avoiding excessive application of the “trademark similarity” standard of civil trademark cases to criminal cases.  More specifically, the case held that a counterfeit “identical trademark” in the criminal law means one that is identical with the registered trademark or not visually different from the registered trademark and therefor is enough to mislead the public.   Where, however, there is a slight difference between the accused counterfeit trademark and the registered trademark, the close similarity is sufficient to cause the relevant public to be confused and it should also be regarded as an “identical trademark.”

The requirement of an “identical trademark” derives from Article 213 of China’s Criminal Code, which provides:

“Whoever, without permission from the owner of a registered trademark, uses a trademark which is identical with the registered trademark on the same kind of commodities shall, if the circumstances are serious, be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years or criminal detention and shall also, or shall only, be fined; if the circumstances are especially serious, the offender shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years and shall also be fined.”

A 2004 judicial interpretation on criminal IP matters (关于办理侵犯知识产权刑事案件具体应用法律若干问题的解释 (2004)) further clarified what constituted an “identical trademark” for purposes of China’s criminal IP laws:

“Article 8: An ‘identical trademark’ as provided for in Article 213 of the Criminal Law refers to the same trademark as the counterfeited registered trademark, or one that is substantially visually indistinguishable from the counterfeited registered trademark, and is sufficient to mislead the public.”

“第八条 刑法第二百一十三条规定的“相同的商标”,是指与被假冒的注册商标完全相同,或者与被假冒的注册商标在视觉上基本无差别、足以对公众产生误导的商标.”

Why should a higher degree of similarity of trademarks be required in criminal trademark cases but not for civil cases?    The critical test, to my mind, should be whether the infringement is willful, and not whether a cunning counterfeiter designed a mark that is insufficiently identical but nonetheless potentially confusing to a segment of the consuming population.  From a policy perspective, public criminal enforcement of the trademark laws can and should protect public interests greater than the legitimate trademark itself, including such interests as purchases by innocent consumers, protecting investment in brand creation and deterring brand dilution, and addressing the confusion of third parties who may be harmed by using these products.  These policies suggest that more liberal construction of what constitutes an “identical” trademark could be useful.   Indeed some courts in the United States have used civil standards to determine when a trademark is counterfeit (United States v. Petrosian , 126 F.3d 1232, 1234 (9th Cir. 1997).  Nonethelesss, even if prosecutors declined to prosecute an “identical” trademark case, the rights owner may still be free to bring a civil case under the “similar trademark” civil standard.

The Chinese summary of the case notes that the Jiangsu IP courts, where this case was held, play a role in delineating the role of the civil and criminal IP systems, as these courts have combined civil, criminal and administrative case adjudication in one tribunal.  I hope that these courts can play an even greater role in clarifying addressing the public policy needs behind different standards of IP protection under China’s civil, criminal and administrative enforcement regimes.

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