Michael Jordan and his Chinese alter ego

In today’s Sports Talk column, I look at the ongoing Jordan vs Qiaodan case. Qiaodan is a HUGE company here (1.7 billion yuan in revenue in 2012), and is keen to clear all obstacles on the road to IPO and further riches, but the whole company has for years pretended to be the official Michael Jordan representative in China. It’s not, of course, but it’s done a great job fooling the public.

Completely different: note the closed fist on the Qiaodan silhouette

Michael Jordan is, quite simply, the greatest basketball player that has ever lived. He’s known throughout the world, as famous in China as elsewhere, so it’s no surprise that sportswear items and other products bearing his name and emblem continue to sell well.

But in China, there are two Jordans: the original Michael and his Chinese alter ego, Qiaodan (a transliteration of his name in Chinese), both of whom seek to profit from Michael Jordan’s fame.

The two corporate entities have clashed for years over who can use the Jordan/Qiaodan name in China, but with a Shanghai court now hearing the case, it appears there may be a resolution soon.

The case, though, is being fought in two very different places: in the courts, and in the court of public opinion. I am no lawyer, but appearances matter and a ruling in favor of Qiaodan will make China look very silly indeed.

To give an American example, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995, much of the public reaction was not that he was in fact innocent, but that the courts had got it wrong. In other words, lose the battle of public opinion and you risk undermining the credibility of your justice system.

Now it may very well be that Michael and his team have failed to register their trademarks adequately in China. Apple, for example, has lost a succession of copyright infringement lawsuits in China, and Jordan may have made similar oversights.

Qiaodan’s line of defense, however, argues that its name in fact means “grass and trees of the south” and is nothing to do with Michael Jordan. But given that the company continues to use a logo almost identical to the famous Jumpman silhouette, markets Jordan’s old number 23 on a range of its products and has registered the Chinese names of Michael’s two sons, anyone who genuinely believes Qiaodan’s explanation should book an immediate appointment with his or her doctor.

Not Michael Jordan

What is perhaps the most galling for Jordan is that Qiaodan recently countersued Jordan, asking for $8 million for damage done to its reputation, and a court in Fujian accepted the case. Legal experts have indicated that there are merits to each side of the debate, but the fact is that Qiaodan raked in $276 million last year by pretending to be something it’s not. That alone should be enough for China to revisit its IP rules.

IP lawyer Stan Abrams, who knows a thing or two about this type of issue, was kind enough to give me his prediction on the outcome of this case:

Based on public information about all this, I’d say that the judge in Fujian should never have taken this case, so we might be looking at some local protectionism in action. If rationality and law creep back into the process, that countersuit will be thrown out of court. I assume it will just sit there until Jordan wins his Shanghai case, and then it will quietly be tossed. But you never know . . .

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