China iPhone deal faces trademark conflict

Apple is in talks with carrier China Unicom to offer the iPhone

A Chinese company that owns the trademark "i-phone" has said it is not in talks with Apple Inc., even though Apple may need the company's blessing to sell its similarly named iPhone in China.

Apple is in negotiations with carrier China Unicom to offer the iPhone in China, and in April it said it hoped to start sales there within the next year.

But Hanwang Technology Co., a maker of electronic devices and Chinese handwriting recognition systems, owns the trademark "i-phone" for mobile phones in China. The similarity of the name iPhone would make it illegal to sell Apple's smartphone under that name in China, said Wang Hao, general manager of BSFD, an intellectual property law agency in Beijing.

Apple applied to register the iPhone trademark in China in late 2002, but its application only covered computer hardware and software, not mobile phones, according to the Web site of China's trademark office.

Two years later, Hanwang -- which is also known as Hanvon -- applied to register the i-phone trademark in the category covering phone equipment, including mobile handsets. The company went on to sell a handset called i-phone, a Hanwang spokeswoman said.

To sell the iPhone in China, Apple would need to reach an agreement with Hanwang or apply for the trademark office to revoke Hanwang's trademark, said Wang. Revoking a trademark usually takes three to four years and is a process that's unlikely to succeed, Wang said.

Hanwang has not been contacted by Apple about the issue, the Hanwang spokeswoman said. Nor has it received notification from China's trademark office of any action by the U.S. company, she said.

She declined to comment when asked what Hanwang would do if Apple announced plans to sell the iPhone in China.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Smuggled iPhones are already extremely popular among wealthy, urban Chinese. There are already over 1 million iPhones in China, according to an estimate from consulting firm Ovum.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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