Rich pickings for company lawyers - on a plate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am

Perhaps Hong Kong's largest telecoms service provider no longer cares about protecting its name. The company once called Pacific Century Cyberworks that paid US$1 million six years ago to buy the domain names and had nothing to say yesterday about the forthcoming auction of a vehicle licence plate bearing the letters PCCW. Or perhaps its lawyers have quietly sprung into action, reading up the law to see if they can stop the auction or plotting to snatch the plate at all costs if the sale goes ahead.

All we know is that there was a flurry of activity at a number of companies and institutions whose acronyms have found their way into an advertisement posted by the Transport Department. It informed the public that 210 personalised vehicle-registration plates are up for auction next month. For as little as HK$5,000 - the price at which bidding will start - people will be able to affix to their vehicles licence plates bearing acronyms such as HKU - for Hong Kong's oldest university - or TVB, the city's most popular television broadcaster. One bidder - perhaps a Porsche enthusiast - will win the right to put a 'Porsche' plate on their car, possibly of an inferior brand, and probably for a fraction of what it costs to buy a top model from the German sports-car maker.

It appears that officials responsible for fleshing out Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's idea of raising revenue by selling personalised licence plates do not think there is anything they can learn from the problem of cyber-squatting. Reserving an internet domain name associated with a well-known brand for the purpose of selling it for profit was a practice that cost many companies dear.

Officials might have concluded that there is nothing wrong with ordinary folks cruising around in cars with licence plates bearing the names of established companies or institutions. But they do care about banning plates that might embarrass the PLA garrison, agents of the central government, public bodies and government departments.

It may well be that the Transport Department's lawyers have confirmed that the scheme is legally sound. Indeed, lawyers say it would be difficult to prove that a car with a licence plate bearing a patented acronym could cause a problem to the patent holder. The common law tort of passing off requires a higher level of proof.

Be that as it may, in other jurisdictions where personalised licence plates have a much longer history we do not see vehicles running around with licence plates bearing well-known brand names. Perhaps some in entrepreneurial Hong Kong will make a million-dollar business out of licence-plate squatting. Time will tell if such an idea will fly. We can say with some confidence, however, that the scheme will generate more work for lawyers trying to protect the good names of their clients.