n one of the most distinctively Chinese copyright cases of recent years, Beijing’s top court has confirmed that Japan’s Muji has indeed been infringing upon the trademark of its Chinese copycat company.
The names of the two companies in Chinese are substantially similar: 無印良品 (Muji) vs 无印良品 (Natural Mill).
While one might logically see this similarity as a case of the newer, smaller company attempting to profit from the brand recognition of an internationally-popular retailer, that’s not the way things work in the wild world of Chinese copyright law.
Instead, the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing has ordered Muji to pay 626,000 yuan ($89,000) in damages and issue a public apology to the Chinese company for trademark infringement.
The ruling follows a convoluted saga that took years to play out, beginning with Muji entering China in 2005. At that time, the company took out trademarks for its name in Chinese characters. However, while that trademark covered most goods that Muji sells, it did not cover them all.
That’s because a Chinese company called Hainan Nanhua registered the Chinese character trademark Wuyinliangpin — which literally translates to “no brand, quality goods — for woven products like bed covers and towels back in 2001.
The trademark was later transferred over to Beijing Cottonfield Textile Corp., which owns Natural Mill. Hainan Nanhua and Beijing Cottonfield sued Muji together in 2015, resulting in a 2017 verdict in their favor which the Japanese retailer tried to appeal.
Muji is far from the first global brand to fall victim to China’s “first come, first serve” system of trademarks. Via a similar technicality, a Chinese company won the right to sell leather products labeled “IPHONE” back in 2016.