Is a Court order to direct the Registrar of Companies Registry to change the name of a shadow company necessary?

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Introduction Companies incorporated in Hong Kong with a name which is confusingly similar or identical to a well-known brand name or trade mark are what we called “Shadow Companies”, which are being used as a tool by some opportunists to carry out counterfeiting and other illegal activities in the Mainland China. Needless to say, the emergence of these shadow companies has long been a headache to many of the brand owners, as they substantially caused confusion to the market. In our previous newsletter “When the Name of Two Companies are “Too Like” – Quick Guide to Remedy and Prevention“ (February 2014 Issue), we have explored the protection and remedies against shadow companies available under the Hong Kong Companies Ordinance (Cap. 622) (“Companies Ordinance”) and common law passing off actions. In this newsletter we will discuss the latest development relating to enforcement under the Companies Ordinance. What are “Shadow Companies”? The shadow companies’ incorporation in Hong Kong and company records registered in the Hong Kong Companies Registry often give a false impression to majority consumers that these shadow companies are associated with or legitimate subsidiaries of the real brand owners, and the fact that these Hong Kong shadow companies are being often used to pass off as the real company in conducting business in the Mainland China.   As highlighted in the case of Exxon Mobil Corporation v USA Aisuo Lubricant Oil (China) Ltd [2014] HKCU 694, a “shadow company” has one or more of the following features:

  1. the key part of its name is identical or confusingly similar to the reputable name or mark of another person with whom it has no connection;
  2. its directors and shareholders are PRC individuals;
  3. its secretary is a Hong Kong secretarial company and usually involved in the incorporation of the shadow company;
  4. its registered office address is the same as that of its secretary or those providing secretarial services to it; and
  5. it backs licenses or otherwise authorizes or permits its name to be used by one or more persons in the PRC, usually a business entity set up by its director/shareholder.

Injunctive Relief for Brand Owners The Hong Kong Courts are no strangers to legal disputes concerning these shadow companies and are ready to act proactively against them. Brand owners may choose to consider taking injunctions against the shadow companies as one of the legal actions, as appropriate. In Biostime International Investment Ltd v France Heson Paper (Hong Kong) Co Ltd [2015] HKCU 622, the plaintiff was an associated company incorporated by BiosTime Inc (Guangzhou), a company incorporated in the Mainland China and belonged to the group of companies described as the Biostime Group, being a well-known premium provider of pediatric nutrition and baby care products in the PRC. The plaintiff was the owner of the “合生元” trade mark registered in Hong Kong (the “Biostime Trade mark”). The defendant was incorporated in Hong Kong with the name France Heson Paper (Hong Kong) Co Ltd (法國合生元紙業 (香港) 有限公司) but was not associated with the plaintiff or the Biostime Group. In that case, the plaintiff successfully obtained injunctive relief to restrain the defendant from infringing the relevant Biostime Trade mark and to restrain the defendant from committing passing off. The Court of First Instance found that the defendant purported to be in the business of manufacturing and/or retailing baby care products relating to Biostime Group and had infringed the Biostime Trade mark by incorporating a company name similar to the Biostime Trade mark through the inclusion of the Chinese characters “合生元” and engaging in trade in relation to goods which were similar or identical to those registered under the Biostime Trade mark by the plaintiff. Is a Court order to direct the Registrar to change the name necessary? In the above Biostime case and Jusikhoesa Lock & Lock (Lock & Lock Co Ltd) & Anor v Lock & Lock International Brand Management Ltd [2016] HKCU 499, the Court of First Instance reiterated that such an order would be inappropriate and unnecessary as the Registrar of the Hong Kong Companies Registry (“Registrar”) can issue such direction based on a Court order restraining the shadow companies to use their name. Thanks to the section 108 of the Companies Ordinance, brand owners no longer need to seek an order directing the Registrar to change the shadow companies’ company names.   The Registrar may simply act upon a Court order restraining the shadow company from using the name or any part of the name to direct such shadow company to change its company name. Implication Although Hong Kong Courts appear to be willing and ready to assist the brand owners to combat shadow companies, to avoid any damage of the brand’s reputation caused by the shadow companies, brand owners should consider obtaining prior and sufficient trade mark registrations at the Hong Kong Trade Marks Registry in order to take actions against possible shadow companies and safeguard the brand’s intellectual property rights.  

For enquiries, please contact our Intellectual Property & Technology Department:

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Important: The law and procedure on this subject are very specialised and complicated. This article is just a very general outline for reference and cannot be relied upon as legal advice in any individual case. If any advice or assistance is needed, please contact our solicitors.
Published by ONC Lawyers © 2018

简介

「影子公司」是指在香港注册,而名称与著名品牌或商标的名称相同或相似得令人混淆的公司。一些投机者会利用影子公司在中国内地进行冒牌及其他不法活动。影子公司的出现在市场造成混淆,一直令很多品牌拥有人头痛不已。

在2014年2月份的文章〈两间公司的名称「太过相似」怎么办?──补救及防止方法概览〉,我们探讨过在香港法例第622章《公司条例》及关于假冒的普通法申索下,品牌拥有人可针对影子公司获得的保障及补救方法。在本文中,我们将讨论关于《公司条例》的最新执行情况。

何谓「影子公司」?

影子公司的香港注册地,加上在香港公司注册处的公司纪录,往往给予消费者一种错觉,以为有关影子公司与真正的品牌拥有人有关联或是其正式附属公司。但事实上,这些在香港的影子公司不时被用作假冒正牌公司在内地经营。

Exxon Mobil Corporation v USA Aisuo Lubricant Oil (China) Ltd [2014] HKCU 694一案当中,影子公司被指出具有以下一项或多项特点:

  1. 其名称的关键部分与另一人的著名名称或标记相同或相似得令人混淆,但该影子公司与该另一人实际上并无关联;
  2. 其董事及股东是内地的个人;
  3. 其公司秘书是香港的秘书服务公司,通常亦涉及成立该影子公司;
  4. 其注册办事处与其公司秘书(或提供公司秘书服务者)的注册办事处相同;及
  5. 其支持、特许或以其他方式授权或准许一名或多名内地人士使用其名称,而该等人士通常是由其董事/股东成立的业务实体。

品牌拥有人可申请的禁制令

香港法院对于涉及影子公司的法律纠纷并不陌生,并倾向打击该等公司。在合适的情况下,品牌拥有人可采取的其中一种法律行动是申请对影子公司发出禁制令。

合生元国际投资有限公司 法国合生元纸业(香港)有限公司 [2015] HKCU 622一案中,原告人是由内地著名婴儿营养及护理产品供应商合生元集团公司旗下在中国内地注册的BiosTime Inc (Guangzhou) 所注册的关联公司,拥有在香港注册的「合生元」商标(「合生元商标」)。被告人是在香港以「法国合生元纸业(香港)有限公司(France Heson Paper (Hong Kong) Co Ltd)」之名称注册的公司,但与原告人及合生元集团并无关联。

在此案中,原告人成功申请对被告人发出禁制令,禁止被告人侵犯合生元商标及作出假冒行为。原讼法庭裁定,被告人宣称从事与合生元集团相关的婴幼儿护理产品的生产及/或零售业务,注册一间与合生元商标名称相似(含有「合生元」中文字元)的公司,而且从事与原告人就合生元商标注册的货品相同或相似的货品贸易,侵犯了合生元商标。

需要请求法院颁令公司注册处处长更改影子公司的名称吗?

在上述Biostime案及Jusikhoesa Lock & Lock (Lock & Lock Co Ltd) & Anor 乐扣乐扣国际品牌管理有限公司 [2016] HKCU 499两宗案件中,原讼法庭重申,请求法院颁令公司注册处处长更改影子公司的名称是不适合及不必要的,因为公司注册处处长(「处长」)可以根据法院禁止影子公司使用其名称的命令,自行发出有关指令。

《公司条例》第108条的规定使品牌拥有人不必请求法院颁令处长更改影子公司的名称。处长只需根据法院禁止影子公司使用其名称(或其一部分)的命令,便可指示有关影子公司更改其公司名称。

影响

虽然香港法院看来愿意协助品牌拥有人打击影子公司,但为免品牌声誉受到影子公司损害,品牌拥有人应考虑及早向香港商标注册署妥为注册商标,以便对潜在的影子公司采取法律行动,保障品牌的知识产权。

 

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注意:以上内容涉及十分专门和复杂的法律知识及法律程序。本篇文章仅是对有关题目的一般概述,只供参考,不能构成任何个别个案的法律意见。如需进一步的法律咨询或协助,请联络我们的律师。
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