Auto Industry

Identity crisis

Land Rover in dispute with local firm that owns its Chinese brand name

Identity crisis

Late for registration

“Take care of your name,” goes an old proverb, “as it’s the only one you have.” But Indian-owned (albeit British-born) carmaker Land Rover appears to have been rather careless with its own nomenclature. Its Chinese name now belongs to a rival.

In the battle to regain its birthright Land Rover is suing not only Zhejiang-based Geely Auto but also China’s Trademark Review and Adjudication Board for ruling against it.

The trial got under way last week, but stems way back to 1999. That’s when Geely filed for the name ‘Luhu’ (Land Tiger) with the trademark office. The trouble was – it sounds the same in Chinese as ‘Road Tiger’, Land Rover’s own trade name in China. But Land Rover only caught wind of the move in 2004, and it went straight to court. Last year, the case finally went in Geely’s favour.

News of the outcome will not have pleased an Indian Commerce Ministry already frustrated at the growing trade deficit with China (over $20 billion last year). Exports have largely been limited to raw materials, and Indian firms have raised concerns at the barriers to selling value-added goods.

Land Rover’s owners, Tata Motors, are politically well-connected, and it’s still possible the dispute could be escalated to an official level. (Tata purchased Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford in 2008).

Land Rover has called Geely’s registration of Land Tiger malicious – pointing out that Geely also owns trademarks similar to the Chinese names for F1, BMW, Jaguar and Hummer.

What Land Rover wants is a fresh appeal, but the China Economic Times isn’t rating its chances highly. “China’s trademark law applies the ‘first to file’ rule,” explains the magazine, “so ‘prior use’ is not necessarily protected by Chinese law.” In fact, one lawyer told the magazine that Geely could now opt to sue Land Rover itself, since its Chinese name was so similar to Land Tiger.

Geely is currently using the disputed brand name for motorcycles, according to the China Car Times. Presumably, tempers would fray further if it started selling Land Tiger SUVs.

Land Rover’s China sales more than doubled last year, to 23,500 – and growth is expected to continue apace once the firm finds a local partner. There is a chance that the lawsuit could push Land Rover towards Geely. “Whether the trademark is transferred [to Land Rover] for a large sum of money or is used as a bargaining chip to become Jaguar and Land Rover’s Chinese partner,” writes the China Economic Times, “that strategic decision 12 years ago has created a sure-win situation for Geely.”

Ironically, the saga comes amid further comments this week from the State Administration of Commerce and Industry that it is embarking on a campaign against trademark violations. “Overseas firms are encouraged to report violations,” Minister Zhou Bohua told the China Daily.

But as long as ‘first to file’ is still the rule, many foreign companies may find that their Chinese trademark names have already been snapped up.

Howsoever this particular dispute gets resolved, Land Rover could soon find that there are new challenges in selling more of its vehicles in China. The Financial Times reported this week that foreign firms now face an “unwritten” obligation to create low-cost local brands in order to get government approval for their new projects. Under the scheme, “product rights” are to be jointly-owned. Foreign carmakers will be wondering if that means giving up another chunk of their technology too.

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