It’s not often someone wakes up to find out that the name given to them by their parents now belongs to a company. That’s now a reality for Jing Hanqing.

Jing is an online celebrity with more than 4 million followers on China’s video platform Bilibili. He recently discovered that the name he’s been using his whole life is now owned by someone else. A company has trademarked the vlogger’s name and said he was infringing on their exclusive right to use it as a brand.

“I’ve been told that I can’t use the name I’ve been using for 22 years, I have to change it,” Jing wrote on social platform Weibo, expressing his bewilderment. “How can I defend my rights?”

It all started July 30, when the vlogger received an email from Zhiqiao Electronic Products claiming that the online channels he operates are in violation of the law. A couple of days later he got another email from a different company advising him to hire a good lawyer because the trademark for his name has “already been transferred a few times,” Jing explained in a video.

The website for China’s trademark office shows that seven different companies have applied for a trademark on Jing’s name.

Jing Hanqing was visibly annoyed after being told the rights to his name had been registered by a company. (Picture: Screenshot from YouTube)

When it comes to trademark law, there’s no shortage of bizarre cases. But in China, the world of intellectual property law can get even murkier. In recent years, IP protection has been growing stronger, but this has also inspired some to cash in on other people’s names by trademark squatting.

Shortly after the 2012 London Olympics, Chinese badminton gold medalist Lin Dan realized his name was being used to sell pig feed. Swimming champion Ye Shiwen found she had become a brand of underwear. The Chinese name of Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has a record of more than 20 attempts to register his name by different companies.

(Abacus is a unit of South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, where Jack Ma is executive chairman.)

Live streamers, vloggers and other influencers are all potential targets of trademark squatters as they try to cash in on an online video industry worth billions in China, investigations from local media such as Xinhua have revealed.

Influencers make prime targets. The industry is lucrative, especially in China, where influencer marketing has been booming. However, influencers make their living by building personal brands, often without many resources when they first start. So they often have limited means of protecting their rights at the start of their careers.

Yet even famous brands can have a difficult time in China. In 2012, for instance, Apple paid $60 million to a company that had registered the name iPad in China.

Part of the issue is that China is a “first to file” country, meaning the first person or company to file for trademark gets it. This is in contrast to “first to use” countries like the US and UK. So some people are trying to use this first-come, first-serve system to their advantage.

According to Arthur Wu, trademark attorney at Kangxin Partners, registering names of well-known people is forbidden. 

“For example, if someone wants to register Chairman Mao Zedong, it will definitely be forbidden,” he said.

But trademark registration examiners often don’t know whether the name being registered actually belongs to a person unless it’s obvious. And in the case of streamers and influencers, it’s unknown whether they’re famous enough to qualify.

Vlogging and video streaming is a multibillion dollar business in China, and some want a piece of the pie without doing the work. (Picture: Nora Tam/SCMP)

China’s permissive trademark system has opened the door to a new type of industry. The country is now home to online companies that specialize in registering trademarks and selling them, according to Catherine Zheng, a China IP lawyer at Deacons.

Zhiqiao Electronic Products is one of those companies. It holds 109 trademarks that include the names of other well-known vloggers such as gamer Luoxing Jieshuo.

For a rising online star, losing one’s name and account, potentially with millions of followers, can be devastating. So content creators have been fighting back by doing what they do best: Making content.

Jing’s vocal complaints have mobilized other vloggers to voice their frustrations. Meanwhile, Bilibili, Jing’s platform of choice, has responded by offering legal counselling to its video makers.

In the future, these cases may become less frequent, said Zheng, as the country has issued a new amendment this year that will make it easier to reject bad-faith trademark registrations.

“The best thing is to do register the trademark first. Once you’re registered you don’t have to worry anymore,” said Zheng, adding that trademark filing isn’t expensive.