By Jiang Ling, Partner, King & Wood’s Trademark Department

Concise and vivid advertising slogans quickly draw the public’s attention and are integral to a company’s brand. Over years of use and promotion, some slogans have become well-known to the public, such as Nike’s "Just do it",  Adidas’ "Impossible is nothing" and DeBeers’  "Diamonds are forever." In many ways, such slogans are often no less important than the company’s logo and other marks. As such, companies must figure how to protect and prevent the unlicensed use of their advertising slogans. Accomplishing this in China presents a unique set of considerations.


Advertising slogans, composed of words in the form of phrases, formally possess both the characteristics of both literal works and trademarks. Therefore, in principle, they can be the protected by the PRC Copyright Law ("Copyright Law") and the PRC Trademark Law ("Trademark Law").

Trademark Protection

The Trademark Law provides that:

"Any visual signs of words, devices, letters, numerals or any combination of the above elements, which being able to distinguish the goods or service of one entity from the others, can be registered as trademarks."

Accordingly, advertising brand names consisting of words are acceptable for trademark. As to whether registration is granted, all trademarks go through an official examination to determine if they possess due distinctiveness and can function as indicators the products they represent. In terms of common word marks, the trademark law does not require a word mark to be original or coined in order to achieve distinctiveness. Generally, as long as the words used by a trademark are not the generic name of the goods or does not directly indicate the features of the products, they are considered distinctive and capable of distinguishing its origin. Hence, "Apple", "Great Wall" and other dictionary words possess just as much distinctiveness as the coined words "NEC", "TCL".

Second, the words used by a brand trademark need not be totally unrelated to the features of the products. For instance, "Safeguard" indicates the features of the products in certain a way, but as long as the indication is not a direct description, the mark does not typically lose its distinctiveness.

However, the examination on trademarks for slogans tends to be more stringent both in terms of the examination criteria employed and in its application by the trademark authorities. According to the Examination Criteria issued by the Trademark Office, a slogan that does "not indicate the characteristics of the products" is one of the most elementary requirements for the registration of a slogan trademark. In addition, slogan trademarks should be original and non-popularly used, which sets a higher threshold in the judgment of their distinctiveness and thereby greatly increases the difficulty in getting them registered in the PRC.

As to whether a trademark is original, it is not difficult to judge in the case of common word marks. Non-dictionary words can most easily be regarded or alleged as "original" words, such as "Haier", "Canon" and "Philips". It seems that applying words in a non-dictionary or non-traditional way, an applicant can relatively easily meet the "originality" component.

The originality of slogans, on the other hand, is not so easy to ascertain. As a short phrase consisting of words, the purpose of slogan is to promote the concept, culture and image of the enterprises and their products, which requires it to be expressed in a way familiar and comprehensible to the general public. Hence, slogan trademarks cannot differ far from the language used by people in daily life. There may be some uniqueness in the sentence structuring, but the slogan ultimately cannot avoid being tinted with a sense of popularity. As such, the originality of a slogan is intrinsically hard to demonstrate.

As different people can have different views and feelings on what is popularly used, this makes Trademark Office’s examination subjective and uncertain. The following slogans have previously applied for registration as trademarks: "The world swings with me", "Inspiration lights life", "Your vision, Our future", "Listening creates the future", "Sense the world, foresee the future" and "Share the moment, share the life" of which the Trademark Office directly approved the registration for "The world swings with me", "Inspiration lights life" and "Your vision, Our future", while rejecting the rest for lack of distinctiveness. The Office even makes a contradictory conclusion to the same slogan applied for different goods. For example, the Eastman Kodak Company’s slogan "Share the moment, Share life" was approved in for pictures, but was denied in for cameras.

However, Article 11 of the Trademark Law provides that slogans that lack distinctiveness cannot be registered as trademarks with the exception of "those that have acquired distinctiveness through use ". According to this provision, if the slogans have established sole association with certain enterprises in the public recognition through use and are capable of functioning as a distinguisher of their source, they can be granted with trademark registration. As this exceptional provision further increases the threshold of registration, meanwhile it has opened a new path for the registration of slogan trademarks. Having met the requirements of this provision by proving the acquired distinctiveness through use, the slogans mentioned above, i.e. "Listening creates the future" of KENWOOD, "Sense the world, foresee the future" of OMRON and "Share the moment, Share the life" of Kodak, which were preliminarily rejected by the Trademark Office, have eventually all been approved for registration.