27 July 2014

Ethiopia: Judges Rule Against Geotel in Phone Counterfeiting Case

A trade tribunal has prohibited Chinese mobile phone assembler, Xia Zhihua, from continued production of two GEOTEL models that it ruled were very similar to Tecno models made by Weigou Yu. Xia Zhihua has also been fined five percent of the proceeds from the sale of the two models.

The tribunal, which has been adjudicating the case since it was first initiated by Weigou Yu on April 4, 2014, rendered its verdict during the recent session held on July 22, 2014, at its offices in the Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) building. The Tribunal has agreed with the Tecno maker in determining that GEOTEL's models were made in a way that confused customers of Tecno.

Tecno's assembler had claimed that Xia Zhihua had counterfeited the package, body and layouts of its T-340 and T-341 model mobile phones on its G-340 and G-341 models. The similarity between its models and that of the defendant is so similar that an ordinary person could not tell them apart, it had stated, adding that this had given the defendant the unfair advantage of using the good reputation of Tecno's models, which was developed over three years on the market.

People had bought the GEOTEL phones thinking they were buying the Tecno models, Weigou Yu said. It asked the tribunal to collect the GEOTEL models from the market and dispose of them, as well as requesting a public apology by the defendant on television and in newspapers.

Both the G-340 and G-341 models are, however, produced in compliance to Ethiopian law, which allows for the registration of uniquely identifiable trademarks, argued Xia Zhihua in his written response submitted on June 19, 2014. The models are certified by the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology (MoCIT), it said.

Rejecting claims of a similarity in colours, body, layouts and packages, it had argued that the plaintiff does not have the right to solely own these appearances. None of the actions during its operation had violated the law, it claimed. Its trademark, GEOTEL, has been legally registered and it is printed on each of its products, similarly to how the trade name Tecno appears on Tecno brands, according to the maker of GEOTEL.

This was an unacceptable line of defence for judges Tesfaye Neway, Henock Tafesse and Hadish Kewene, who ruled that the GEOTEL models were, indeed, made in a way that could confuse consumers.

The judges have heard an expert testimony from the MoCIT, who said that securing a certificate of competence from the Ministry by itself cannot prove ownership.

"The certificate was issued only by considering whether the models were suitable for use," experts told the judges, according to the judgement.

In its decision, the Tribunal banned Xia Zhihua from making the G-340 and G-341 models and ordered the defendant to transfer five percent of the earnings it has so far made from the sale of two models to the government coffers.

"Since the tribunal has to be careful in protecting the country's economy from wastage and since the defendant is already banned from making the phones, the request for the collection from the market and disposal of the phones is unacceptable," stated the judgement read by the presiding judge, Tesfaye.

It is meaningless to give a ruling that is difficult to apply, he said. The Tribunal has also rejected Tecno's request for an order of compensation for the damage it has incurred due to the counterfeiting of the products.

The deputy general manager of the defendant company, who attended the ruling, left in anger and in a rush after hearing the verdict.

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