China Trademark Infringement: Beware of Products that Shouldn’t Exist

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It’s good to be a cynic and a skeptic. If you’re out there shopping and something about that attractive product doesn’t feel right, some investigation might be in order. In some cases, you may find that the famous brand you were drawn to shouldn’t have been attached to that product in the first place.

A shopper in Hefei recently learned that lesson the hard way:

After the woman, surnamed Song, found the contact lenses were broken, she returned to the store, a major eyeglass shop in the city, and asked for a new pair. When waiting to return the lenses, it struck her that the product she bought might be counterfeit since the label on the package was the brand Ponds[.]

The shop’s staff said they bought the contact lenses from Governor Optical in Jiangsu province. The company said Ponds’ parent company Unilever, a British-Dutch personal and hygiene product maker, has authorized it to use the label. However, the claim was denied by Unilever, which said Ponds only produces skincare products and has never produced any optical products[.]

Were those contact lenses counterfeits? Not exactly. The term “counterfeit” generally refers to the reproduction of another company’s product. Here there was no other product, since Unilever/Ponds does not produce contact lenses.

What we are dealing with here is an unauthorized use of the “Ponds” brand, or to put it simply, trademark infringement. I’m assuming, of course, that Unilever has protected that mark in China. Why not unfair competition, like we see in many counterfeit goods disputes? I believe that since Unilever doesn’t make contact lenses, and there is no market competition between the two enterprises, the Anti-unfair Competition Law would not apply.

For consumers, this sort of IP infringement may actually be easier to deal with than counterfeit goods. No need to learn how to spot fakes from genuine products, a sometimes laborious task. No, in this case, if you believe that the item is not normally associated with that brand, jump online and see if you find it from a reliable source.

In this case, a search for the “Ponds” mark with “contact lenses” or something similar (in Chinese, of course) should have taken care of this problem for the shopper, if she had thought about it before making the purchase of course.

And you never know what might be real/authorized (e.g., this bizarre choice of trademark). I recently stumbled across some mystery meat products at the supermarket that had the “Angry Birds” trademark and artwork plastered all over it. Suspecting IP infringement, I went back home and consulted Dr. Google, who told me that in fact these were licensed products. See how easy that is?

Sometimes an investigation is unnecessary. For example, if you happen to see a new brand of soy sauce, brought to you by the Sinopec corporation, you might want to steer clear. Similarly, I’d pass on “Mountain Dew X-treme”-brand erectile dysfunction medication. That’s just not going to end well.

Needless to say, when you’re dealing with something you ingest, like the Angry Birds meat products, or things that can blind you, like contact lenses, an extra level of care is in order.

Let’s be careful out there.