US coffee store chain Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) has lost a trademark infringement claim in Beijing’s top court over an online gaming world that sounds very similar to the retailer’s Chinese name. Starbucks is known locally as XingBaKe, and the MMORPG land is dubbed ShaBaKe; it not only sounds close, but also uses two out of three identical Chinese characters.
The court’s ruling went in favor of Shanda Interactive (NASDAQ:SNDA; FRA:RZP), the Chinese gaming giant that created the game Legend of Mir in which ShaBaKe appears. In the 2D online game, ShaBaKe is a virtual castle fortress (pictured above). The game – and that castle’s name – dates back to 2003, but Starbucks’ Chinese name was registered in 2005, says Sina Games today. But, looking at a previous copyright win for Starbucks in China in 2006 (see the story on Forbes), it’s stated that Starbucks registered its Chinese moniker way back in 1996.
The case has actually rumbled on for many years, with Starbucks previously asserting that it had a stronger claim (in 2009 and then 2011) to the name. But last year another court ruled that the “sha” and the “xing” sounds were not so close that the name actually sounded exactly the same as its coffee shops.
The Beijing First Intermediate Court took this newest case brought by Starbucks in March of this year, then held a public hearing in June, before handing down its verdict this afternoon.
The Chinese term ShaBaKe can actually be traced to its usage long ago as a transliteration of Shabak, which refers to a minority ethnoreligious group that lives in northern Iraq, so it’s not like Shanda even invented the Chinese name itself.
Starbucks’ mellifluous Chinese name is often imitated by other retailers in China, especially the two sounds “Ba Ke” (which is a phonetic rendition of “bucks”) at the end of its name. Aside from all that, the chain is performing well in the country, and has been using Chinese social media very cleverly to do social marketing.