Trump toilet: Chinese businessman says he has no intention of soiling US President-elect's name

A company profile on Shenzhen Trump Industrial Co. Ltd's website.
A company profile on Shenzhen Trump Industrial Co. Ltd's website. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM EN.SZTRUMP.NET

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - The founder of a Chinese brand of high-tech toilets called Trump said he had no intention of soiling the name of America's next president.

Mr Zhong Jiye, the founder, said he had not heard of Mr Donald Trump when he registered the English name of his company, Shenzhen Trump Industrial Co. Ltd, as a trademark in 2002.

In Chinese, the company name means "innovate universally", he said, highlighting how the toilet seats warm and wash the user's backside.

That Chinese name, he explained, also sounds a little like "trump".

"We really didn't know of this person called Trump," Mr Zhong said in a telephone interview from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. "It was entirely a coincidence."

In the US, Mr Trump's name has adorned ties, steaks, water and other products. In China, it is found on computers, cosmetics, even leather goods.

The difference: Many such Chinese products don't have the President-elect's permission.

Of the 46 registered trademarks under the Trump name in China, 29 appear to be owned by Mr Trump, based on data with the country's trademark office. At least 14 companies not associated with Mr Trump applied for the Trump trademark in 2015 and 2016 alone, according to Itaotm, a Chinese commercial trademark website.

 

The situation highlights the difficulties that big brands and celebrities face as they navigate the country's relatively new trademark laws.

In China, trademarks are generally awarded to those who are first to file with the government. That has given rise to a crush of people registering the names of well-known brands, in a practice known as "trademark squatting".

Many Western companies like Apple and Starbucks have been caught up in long legal battles to win the right to use their names in China.

In May, a Chinese company won the right to sell its leather goods under the iPhone trademark after years of legal wrangling with Apple. Michael Jordan lost the rights to the name he is known by in China. New Balance paid US$16 million (S$22.62 million) in damages for what a court said was the illegal use of the Chinese name for the company, which a person had trademarked.

"It's very difficult to prove bad faith," said Mr Matthew Dresden, a lawyer with Harris Moure in Seattle who specialises in Chinese intellectual property law. "It's very hard to prove that your name is well known at the time that the application is filed."

Mr Trump has fought at least once to get his name back. In 2015, he lost a legal battle against Mr Dong Wei, a businessman in the northern province of Liaoning, to prevent him from using the Trump name for a construction company, according to a website run by China's Supreme Court. Then the decision was reversed.

A notice issued on Sunday (Nov 13) on China's trademark office website said that Mr Trump's trademark had been granted preliminary approval for use in construction services. The Wall Street Journal reported the decision on Monday (Nov 14).

Mr Alan Garten, general counsel of the Trump Organisation, did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Mr Trump isn't the first world leader wrapped up in a name dispute in China.

In 2004, the country's government officials were not favourably inclined when a Chinese businessman tried to register the Chinese name of former President George W. Bush for a brand of disposable diapers. The officials said the application was likely to be rejected "because it may bring about bad social impact if a leader's name is registered as a trademark", according to state media.

Mr Zhong, of the toilet-maker Shenzhen Trump, said he had not received a challenge from Mr Trump or his company. Still, he said, he "will never" give up his trademark easily, if Mr Trump decides to sue.

"Litigating is his right," Mr Zhong said. "But we will let the government make its judgment. We believe the country's laws will protect businesses like us."

Mr Zhong said he approved of Trump's "courageous style and spirit of reform".

He also liked Mr Trump's "innovative ideas".

When asked about the criticism directed toward Mr Trump in the US, Mr Zhong said, "Democratic countries are like that. I think a transformation is not bad at all."