Many people in China who grew up with the internet also grew up with the high-pitched “beep beep beep beep beep beep” sound of Tencent’s QQ messaging service and social network constantly ringing in their ears.
The sound, emitted when a user receives a new message through the software on a phone or computer, is familiar to large swathes of the Chinese population, but the State Administration for Industry & Commerce’s Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB) nevertheless rejected a trademark application for the sound in May 2014. Now, Tencent is suing the government body.
The case opened on Tuesday at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court, according to a report on China National Radio (CNR)’s website. The Beijing court will decide whether the sound qualifies for a trademark, though the precise length of time it will take to issue a ruling is unknown.
Tencent’s QQ audio notification repeated three times.
China’s trademark law was revised in 2013, allowing companies to trademark sounds for the first time. But there has been disagreement over how the new law should be applied. TRAB has stood by its decision to deny a sound trademark to Tencent on the grounds that the sound is neither complex nor distinctive enough, and that as a mere notification sound for new messages, it is hard to prove that it represents the whole service.
Tencent disagrees. According to the CNR report, a Tencent representative said during Tuesday’s court proceedings that users of the QQ service know when they hear the sound that they have received a message through the software, and as such, the sound represents QQ to users.
A spokeswoman for Tencent told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that she was unable to comment on the court case while the hearing is ongoing. The TARB employee who answered the phone on Thursday said he couldn’t comment on the case.
You Yunting, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property at DeBund Law Offices in Shanghai, believes Tencent may have a case if the company can prove that the notification sound is easily distinguishable as part of QQ. “Because QQ’s user numbers are so high and the use of the tone common, they have a chance at winning the suit,” he told Sixth Tone via e-mail.
Earlier in the year, Tencent won the rights to a trademark for another chat app — Weixin, known as WeChat in English — despite the fact that a smaller company registered the Chinese name as a trademark before Tencent. Intellectual property lawyer You attributes the win to Tencent’s size and reputation, adding that courts wouldn’t want to be seen as opposing such a large, popular company — qualities that You believes might help Tencent in the current case, too. “Tencent’s public relations capabilities are impressive, so I think they have a good chance of winning,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lin Qiqing.
Correction: China’s trademark law was revised in 2013, not 2014 as previously reported.
(Header image: The login page for Tencent’s QQ messaging app is displayed on a smartphone in an arranged photo, Hong Kong, Aug. 13, 2014. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)