Tempest brews over rights to Moutai name

Updated: 2012-10-31 08:12

By Zhang Zhao (China Daily)

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China's famed liquor maker Kweichow Moutai Co Ltd is suing a less-known competitor that claims it also has the right to use the Moutai name. Beijing's Fengtai district court will begin hearing the case on Nov 6.

The dispute was triggered last year when Kweichow Moutai's anti-counterfeit personnel and Beijing's railway police detained a shipment of liquor produced by Guizhou Ronghe Liquor Co Ltd because it had the name Maotai on its packaging.

During evidence discovery proceedings at the Fengtai court last week, Moutai presented a trademark certificate for "Maotai Town". Ronghe responded that the detained products were produced in 2009, but the trademark was approved in 2010.

Ronghe Chairman Qiu Fuguang said Maotai is the name of a place anyway, so it "should be in the public domain and not owned exclusively by a single company".

"According to the Trademark Law, all distillers in the town can use the name," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of people's jobs will be influenced if the name is forbidden from use by other distillers."

Even excluding small-scale family workshops, there are now at least 500 distilleries based in Maotai, a town in Guizhou province. In Renhuai city where the town is located, the number is likely more than 1,000.

State-owned Kweichow Moutai was founded in 1951 through the merger of three local whisky makers. Ronghe was one of them.

Wang Lingjie, an attorney for Ronghe, insisted that his client has the right to use Maotai as the name of a place.

Kweichow Moutai also claimed that Ronghe's packaging used a similar design to its own, which "might cause visual confusion".

But Ronghe countered that the two designs are "obviously different and will not mislead customers" because the name Ronghe is on both its cartons and bottles, and its own trademark is printed on the bottle cap.

'Sham promotion'

Kweichow Moutai "has been cheating Chinese people the whole time", Qiu claimed.

For decades, one of its most-used advertisements described how it won a gold medal in the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. But Qiu claims the proud history was actually made up.

In 1915, Moutai was a general name of all liquors produced in Maotai town. Two local distillers, Ronghe and Chengyu, were selected by the government to send products to the expo to represent all Moutai liquors.

The liquor was awarded a silver medal at the expo, not gold as Moutai claims in its advertising. The silver medal was actually fourth prize, following the grand prize, medal of honor and gold medal.

That version of history was the one written in local records of the time and cited in a book compiled by the Chinese Food Culture Research Association in 2000, "which proves that Ronghe is a forerunner of today's Moutai", said Qiu.

The silver medal is still preserved at Ronghe's headquarters, Qiu added.

Moutai's attorney acknowledged the truthfulness of that history, but said it "has no connection with the case".