Will the Real Peppa Please Stand Up? – The War Between Peppa Pig and China Copycats

Peppa Pig is one of the most popular cartoon figures in China, but the company behind the porcine celebrity is losing out on millions of dollars. For years, so-called “trademark squatters” have been registering Peppa trademarks in China to profit from the piglet’s PRC success.

From Peppa Pig t-shirts to tattoos to tableware – over the past few years, the British cartoon pig Peppa has conquered the Chinese market and its merchandise is being sold from Taobao to neighborhood shops.

But the tens of millions of dollars that the company behind Peppa Pig – Entertainment One UK Limited – should have gained from its big China boom, have gone to many other companies instead. In 2011, long before Peppa had her big breakthrough in the PRC, people have scrambled to register for Peppa Pig (小猪佩奇) trademarks in China.

Anything Peppa is booming on Taobao.

According to various news sources, one company (扬州金霞塑胶有限公司) registered 21 different variations of a ‘Peppa Pig’ trademark back in 2011, and one person by the name of Cai (蔡X) even registered 100 trademarks similar to Peppa Pig in that same year across different industries.

Dozens of Peppa Pigs trademarks.

The topic of unauthorized Peppa Pig products and brands in China gained a lot of attention on Chinese social media this week, after Chinese news outlet The Paper published an interview with Entertainment One’s Brand Protection senior director Niall Trainor on September 25, in which he was quoted as saying that due to copyright infringement, the company has suffered “a loss of tens of millions of dollars in China alone, without exaggeration.”

 
Peppa Pig and the Trademark Squatters
 

Trainor explained that one of the biggest challenges for Entertainment One UK in fighting unofficial Peppa Pig goods or services in China, is that their trademark has already since long been (successfully) registered across various industries in China, from educational fields to dental healthcare industries.

In China, anyone is basically allowed to apply for a trademark for a specific industry. It is a lengthy process that can take up to two years to be approved, if no objections were received. The country has a so-called “first-to-file” and “multi-class application” system, meaning the person who registered the trademark in a certain category first, will get all the rights to distribute and sell the products within that class.

From pianos, to pasta and puppets: a selection of Peppa Pig products available on Taobao and Tmall.

But there are many people taking advantage of this system. So-called “trademark squatters” (商标抢注者) try to register trademarks across various classes for the purpose of earning money, often specifically targeting well-known foreign trademarks in doing so. Language barriers and foreign companies’ unfamiliarity with Chinese trademark procedures make them especially vulnerable to these kinds of practices.

A well-known example is that of Apple, as introduced by Sunny Chang in “Combating Trademark Squatting in China.” Although the American company made their first application for their iPhone trademark in China in 2002, they only did so in the class of “computers and computer software” (Chang 2014, 338). One Chinese company soon seized the opportunity, and managed to successfully register the iPhone trademark under the “phones and mobile phones” category. Eventually, Apple ended up paying that company $3.65 million to reclaim their rights to the trademark. For a ‘trademark squatter,’ there is a fortune to be made from a relatively simple registration procedure.

Recently, there is more attention for victims of this kind of “bad faith trademark registration” (恶意抢注). Earlier this month, a court ruling in Hangzhou involving Bayer and one of its sunscreen brands (see this article) pointed out that victims of trademark squatters may be able to pursue civil actions for compensation against them.

But for Peppa Pig, a lot of damage has already been done. Peppa first aired as a British animated television series (produced by Astley Baker Davies) in May of 2004, but it took more than eleven years before the show was officially launched in the PRC (CCTV/June 2015). Since then, Peppa Pig has become one of the most popular programs for preschoolers in China. The early ‘trademark squatters’ were years ahead of its big success.

The Peppa Pig brand especially suffered from the fake Peppa merchandise industry in China in 2017, when the little pig became somewhat of an icon on Chinese social media and in the trendy fashion scene.

Earlier this year, What’s on Weibo published an article discussing the pig’s status as a cultural icon for some subcultural groups in China.

 
No Pity for Peppa
 

As Peppa’s popularity in China is still on the rise, the trademark war is anything but over. According to the The Paper, one Shenzhen company registered the trademark of George Pig (小猪乔治, Peppa’s little brother) in 2016 in a total of 28 categories, varying from board games to puppets. Their application was successfully completed earlier this year.

The Peppa Pig family, including George.

Meanwhile, Entertainment One is fighting a neverending battle against copyright infringement in China, but has failed to even register its Peppa Pig trademark in categories such as ‘plush toys,’ since others beat them to it.

On Weibo, the hashtag “The Domestic Fight over the Peppa Pig Trademark” (#小猪佩奇商标国内被抢注#) has been viewed more than 11 million times today.

Many people call “trademark squatting” a practice that is similar to a lottery, as one never knows if their efforts to register various trademarks are actually going to pay off. Some even praise those who registered Peppa trademarks as early as 2011 for their ‘prophetic vision’ about the pig’s coming popularity in the PRC years down the road.

There are many commenters who do not seem to sympathize at all with the British creative company behind Peppa and their struggle over the Peppa trademark. “Foreigners have also taken many trademarks from China,” a typical comment says: “We’ll also never get that money back.”

“Whoever registered the trademark first is to whom it belongs,” many other people comment.

There are, however, some people who are worried about their Peppa products, wondering: “So are my Peppa showergel, cookies, and sweets the real thing or not?”

Some voices speak out for better protection of copyright in China, saying: “Originality needs to be protected.”

Ironically, a verified Weibo account named “Peppa Pig” (@小猪佩奇PeppaPig), registered by a company in Xiamen (厦门小黄人科技有限公司), also responded to the issue, calling those people fighting over the Peppa trademark “abominable.”

Some people do not understand what all the fuss is about in the first place, writing: “Why are people going crazy over a pig that just looks like a blow dryer anyway?”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

References

Chang, Sunny. 2014. “Combating Trademark Squatting in China: New Developments in Chinese Trademark Law and Suggestions for the Future. Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business 34(2): 337-358.

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