At issue in an unprecedented $253,000 lawsuit is the question of copyright protection for celebrity product endorsements of two Chinese tonics. The ads claimed the elixirs fostered record-shattering perfor-mances of top women racers.
The case is a testing ground for copyright protection and may shape emerging laws and regulations governing advertising, contract protections and intellectual property rights, according to parties in the lawsuit and industry observers. A debate over celebrity endorsement as a copyright has never occurred before in China.
Ma Junren, the flamboyant coach of Wang Junxia and other Chinese distance stars known as "Ma's Family Army," triggered the legal battle when he endorsed two traditional Chinese medicine products, both as the exclusive elixirs of his runners.
After Chinese runners smashed world records in several 1993 competitions and ignited an international torrent of drug use charges, Mr. Ma attributed his proteges' success to turtle and caterpillar potions.
The case is now before the Intellectual Property Tribunal of Beijing Intermediate Court, but no one knows when a ruling will be made. Mr. Ma, who isn't directly involved in the litigation, refused to be interviewed.
The legal battle is taking place between two drug companies and their agencies. Like Pharmaceutical Co., Zhongshan, and its agency, Bafang, filed suit in June against Xinde Pharmaceutical Co., Zhejiang province, and its agency, China Tru-Star Movie & TV Exchange Center, alleging copyright infringement for running similar TV endorsements by Mr. Ma.
Like's suit claims Mr. Ma was paid $23,000 for exclusive backing of Like's caterpillar fungus preparation in commercials which ran on national TV in September and October 1993.
The Like ad features film footage of Mr. Ma and his athletes, including Ms. Wang, claiming that "caterpillar fungus preparation works wonders."
But in November, Xinde broke ads for its turtle extract, showing Mr. Ma brandishing a bottle of the product at a press conference. Like's ads were pulled by the stations once the Xinde ads began running.
Like is seeking $115,000 in damages, while its agency is demanding $138,000 in compensation for lost revenue when the spots were pulled.
"It's not a matter of how much we will get in compensation. This case will help standardize China's laws and rules on advertising," said Nan Ziwei, Bafang general manager.
Li Xinguang, deputy general manager of China Tru-Star, said Mr. Ma signed agreements with both companies and insists there was no copyright violation.
Although Mr. Ma initially signed a contract designating the Like product as the "only exclusive" health product for his runners, he later insisted that "only" be omitted so as not to interfere with his Xinde endorsement, Mr. Li said.
"Apart from contributing to improving China's laws and rules on advertising, this case will also show whether people in the ad business and their rights and operations are protected by law," Mr. Li said.