Worldwide: Michael Jordan's Great Win In China—Or Is It?

On December 8, 2016, Beijing time, the China Supreme People's Court issued a public decision granting Michael Jordan a win in his four-year battle over the right to own his name in Chinese characters.  But the win was not a complete one. In that same decision, Supreme Court concluded that Michael Jordan does not own the phonetics of the name JORDAN in Chinese characters.

What exactly does this mean?

The dispute started more than a decade ago between "Qiaodan Sports" (a Chinese sportswear company headquartered in the southeastern part of China) and Michael Jordan (the six-time NBA champion from the United States). Qiao-Dan is the English phonetic (the so called "transliteration") of JORDAN in Chinese characters. If you say "Qiao-Dan" to a Chinese native speaker, he or she recognizes that as referring to JORDAN in English.

The beginnings of the conflict date back to the 1990s. When Nike expanded the Air Jordan brand to China in the 90s, it registered the JORDAN mark in English. It did not, however, register the JORDAN mark in Chinese characters.

Qiaodan Sports was established around 1998. It started out as a small footwear company based in Fujian Province, China. In the ten-year period (between 2000 and 2010), Qiaodan Sports registered a number of QIAO-DAN trademarks. As further evidence of its true intent, it also obtained trademark registrations in various iterations of the jump man silhouette. Today, Qiaodan Sports owns close to 500 trademark registrations in China.  Some of these marks are shown below:

For whatever reason, Nike either failed to oppose these marks or decided not to pursue appeals with the Chinese courts. By 2012-2013, Qiaodan Sports had consistently used its Chinese version of the JORDAN mark for more than a decade. Once registrations in China pass the five-year mark, they are very difficult to remove through invalidation actions. And throughout that time, Qiaodan Sports continued to build its sports and footwear apparel empire. By 2015, it owned more than 5700 retail stores across China and had annual sales of RMB 3 trillion (roughly US $500 million). At one time, it even considered becoming a publicly traded company in China.

In 2012, Michael Jordan commenced actions to cancel Qiaodan Sports' trademarks, filing more than 78 appeals and lawsuits with China's Trademark Appeal Board, Beijing First Intermediate Courts, and Beijing High People's Court. He lost them all.

In 2016, the China Supreme People's Court (the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the United States) accepted Michael Jordan's appeal. The Supreme Court held a public hearing in April and issued its decision in December wherein it supported 3 out of 10 appeals filed by Michael Jordan, denying the other 7. The Supreme Court ruled that Michael Jordan enjoys personal name rights over the Chinese characters for QIAO-DAN (the 3 wins). While giving with one hand, the court took away with the other, denying Michael Jordan's rights in the corresponding Chinese phonetics for JORDAN (the 7 losses).

Is this really the "great win" as the media is claiming?  Not quite.

Out of the three trademark registrations discussed in the Supreme Court decision in which Michael Jordan was successful (outlined below), only the first registration would have a practical business impact on Qiaodan Sports. A quick search of Chinese trademark records shows that there are over 100 marks in China that are registered with JORDAN in Chinese characters. Among these 100+ marks, there are eight registrations that are comprised solely of the two QIAO-DAN characters. Qiao-Dan Sports  is still the owner of the English phonetics QIAO-DAN, the jersey shirt number "23", and the flying man silhouettes.

Unlike the United States, China follows the first-to-file system.  This means rights are based almost exclusively on registrations (except for some cases where senior rights are recognized as "famous"—a very high threshold to establish in China). Michael Jordan was having a hard time getting support from the China administrative and judicial system precisely because he (or Nike) did not have any senior rights in JORDAN through Chinese registrations. Quite simply, while Michael Jordan was one of the fastest on the basketball court, Qiaodan Sports was faster before the Chinese trademark office.  Qiaodan Sports beat Nike and Michael Jordan to it.

It is important to understand that there is no "fixed" Chinese mark for an English brand.  The Chinese language is a "fluid" language where the meaning of each character is determined mostly by the context (i.e., its surrounding characters). A Chinese brand can be created by translation (such as "Apple"), transliteration (such as "Google"), brand concept (e.g., BMW's Chinese brand literally means "treasure horse"), nickname (Viagra is known as "great brother" in China), or a combination of any of the above methods. In this case, after Nike's entry to the Chinese market in the 90s, due to the lack of an "official" Chinese name for Jordan, the market simply created one.  Over the years, the two specific QIAO-DAN characters have formed an exclusive connection with  "JORDAN" in English.  This exclusive connection, however, is only in the commercial world. Trademark owners have to take it one step further to register the English and Chinese marks together to formally and legally establish the connection.

While Jordan now owns the QIAO-DAN characters, he does not own the "sound" (the phonetics) for these characters.  However, it was still a good win for Jordan for the following reasons:

  • Characters are a more popular form of use than the phonetics; thus, among the two, Jordan won the more important one.
  • Qiaodan Sports' bad faith was recognized by the Supreme Court based upon its ownership of the silhouette logo, the famous jersey number "23," and the names of Jordan's two sons, in English and Chinese characters. Ultimately, this finding could be helpful in prevailing in the lower courts.
  • Overall, this is a favorable development for western brand owners. Through this win, Michael Jordan and Nike have formally announced to Chinese consumers that the company "Jordan Sports" has no connection to either the real Michael Jordan or Nike.  The message will be heard loud and clear.

Lessons learned from the Jordan v. Qiaodan lawsuit? If you are doing business in China and you do not yet have a formal Chinese brand name, search the market to see if one has been created for you and, if so, register it immediately. If not, devote your resources to creating one. If you already have a Chinese name, make sure to monitor the market periodically to make sure no other names—such as nicknames— have been created for your brand, and consider whether it makes sense to register them for defensive purposes. And if there are multiple Chinese brands floating in the market that all refer back to the same English brand (not uncommon in China), while it is important to seek protection legally, it is also important to start a campaign to "unify" your brand name in Chinese.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Events from this Firm
23 Sep 2018, Seminar, Chicago, United States

Finnegan is a sponsor of the Intellectual Property Owners Association Annual Meeting, supporting the Women in IP Networking Brunch.

26 Sep 2018, Webinar, Washington, DC, United States

This latest series of webinars will explore emerging trends in the changing intellectual property (IP) legal environment in Europe and the United States.

26 Sep 2018, Webinar, Washington, DC, United States

This latest series of webinars will explore emerging trends in the changing intellectual property (IP) legal environment in Europe and the United States.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions