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'Spicy Girl' Hot Pot Dispute Boils Over, New Name Needed

Chongqing local Li Jian recently found himself in hot water after documents showed the name of his 12-year-old restaurant in the Shangqingsi area was trademarked by another company.

Li started to run a sidewalk food stall at the night market in the 1990s. He recalled that business was "once brisk", but he closed it due to urban reform projects. So in 2002 he opened a hot pot restaurant.

"We have used the name Lameizi (Spicy Girl) for the restaurant since it was founded. It was written on our business license," Li told the local Chongqing Morning Post newspaper.

Home to a number of government departments, Shangqingsi is a bustling area. The hot pot restaurant had many regular customers, Li said, who helped generate daily revenues of more than 5,000 yuan ($800).

But during this year's Spring Festival holidays in February, Li had some unexpected guests.

Representatives of Sichuan Lameizi Restaurants Co in Chengdu told him that they not only started using the name Lameizi earlier than him, but also had registered it as a trademark.

The Chengdu chain was founded in 1991 and applied for a trademark in 1998 with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. It was approved in 2002.

"They told me that I had infringed on their trademark and I could no longer use the name," Li said. "But they also offered another option - an annual licensing fee of 20,000 yuan to continue using the name."

At first Li paid little attention to the complaint because he did not receive a formal notice from a government department or law enforcement.

But in May his visitors from Chengdu returned with their trademark registration documents along with officials from the local industry and commerce administration.

"Since all their documents are real, I have no chance to win even if I wanted to wrangle with them," Li said.

So he changed the name of his restaurant to Lahanzi - or Spicy Man - and plans to apply for his own trademark.

He changed the signboard in mid-May, but business became "much slacker", he said.

"Many regular customers no longer came, thinking the restaurant is now run by another owner."

He has hung a notice at the restaurant window explaining he changed the name because he had used a trademark without authorization. Li said business is recovering but still not as good as before.

Ma Yanfei, a lawyer at Chongqing Xuzheng Intellectual Property Agency, noted "there are at least 30 or 40 hot pot restaurants in the city with the name Lameizi".

"Most of the restaurants in Chongqing are small businesses and their owners are unlikely to register trademarks because they lack brand awareness," Ma said. "It's a pity that some names used for years have fallen in others' hands."

"I never thought of registering a trademark 12 years ago, but this time I surely will apply for one," said Li.

(Source: China Daily)

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