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TESS VIGELAND: Back in the dot-com heyday domain name squatters forced companies to pay big for the rights to their own names. A few years on, some entrepreneurial Chinese have taken note. They've been registering the trademarks of high-profile Western companies in China. Jocelyn Ford reports on one Chinese businessman who thought he snared the trademark of a big, fat blue chip company.
JOCELYN FORD: Every week China's trademark office publishes a list of logos that it's approved. Recently, the list included a logo familiar to American public TV viewers.
That's the Public Broadcasting System's theme. You may also recall seeing PBS's logo, a pointy-nosed profile? Well, Beijing trademark authorities recently gave a Chinese businessman rights to use it in China on things like t-shirts and hats.
Since PBS is hardly known in this country I wondered what he planned to do with it. So I called the lawyer who handled the registration.
Obviously, Lawyer Hou Songlin had been waiting for a call from a foreigner.
Lawyer Hou said Chinese are clever and know how valuable trademarks are to foreign companies. He wouldn't tell me what he knew about the company that owned the logo, but he was ready to bargain.
HOU SONGLIN (translator): "Tell me how much money the American side can offer for their trademark"
Hou started bidding at a mere $100,000. That would be a nice profit. It only costs a few hundred dollars to register in the first place. It soon went up to $250,000 because he said he might have to grease some palms.
I called trademark lawyer Joe Simone of Baker & McKenzie to find out how often Chinese register logos that belong to foreign companies.
JOE SIMONE: "Every week there's numerous, obvious examples of piracy. On average we'll find 15 or 20 of companies that we know."
But he says few companies pay ransom. Most lodge a complaint and that can stop the logo from being used in China for as long as eight years.
On the phone, when I reminded Lawyer Hou that according to Chinese law, the American company has until August to challenge the registration He suddenly became confrontational, threatening.
HOU SONGLIN (translator):"It's easy to make Chinese angry. And when we get angry we want revenge. If you file a complaint. I will never sell it to you!"
I told him I'm a reporter, not a company representative, but he didn't seem to get it.
Lawyer Hou wasn't done with me yet. He called me back looking for information.
It turned out he had no idea who the pointy-nosed logo belongs to, or what PBS is. So he didn't know how much his catch was worth. He asked me to tell him the Web site of the owner.
I declined, but he'd probably be disappointed to learn it's PBS, a non-profit organization that's been facing budget cuts from Congress.
In Beijing, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.