President Trump (Evan Vucci/AP)

Among the 38 trademarks approved for the Trump Organization by the Chinese government over the past few weeks is one that seems likely to raise a few eyebrows: As of now, it is the only company that can legally operate Trump-branded escort services in China.

Which is precisely the point.

Last year, we explored a surprising international business effort called “Trump Escorts.” Based at trumpescorts.com but offering services in a number of countries, Trump Escorts used the Trump lettermark for its logo and listed its address as 180 Riverside in New York City, the location of a building called Trump Place. On the day after Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency, Trump Escorts sent out a news release promoting its revamped website.


(Still captured by the Internet Archive)

That conveniently timed news release was actually a pretty good indicator that the company was simply trying to capitalize on the Trump name and not actually affiliated with the businessman. A little digging revealed that the company was using the Trump name to brand its escort services without the consent of the Trump Organization. That 180 Riverside address, for example, got the address of Trump Place wrong — and Trump Place is an apartment building. The Trump Organization is located in Trump Tower.

Alan Garten, chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, told The Washington Post in a statement at the time that the Trump Organization had sent a cease-and-desist to Trump Escorts, forcing the company to change its name to “Mystique Companions.”

“[W]e zealously protect Mr. Trump’s valuable name, brand and trademarks,” Garten said at the time. “Unfortunately, as the brand has grown in popularity around the world, there are more and more people who have tried to trade off his name.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, President-elect Donald Trump recounts how he came up with "Make America Great Again" and reveals what his 2020 campaign slogan will be. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

That’s the factor at play with the Chinese trademark for Trump Escorts. As The Washington Post’s China bureau chief, Simon Denyer, noted in his analysis of the trademark applications, “Chinese trademark law grants priority to whoever files an application first, so lawyers often advise clients with wide-ranging business interests to file broad, defensive trademark applications against a range of products to prevent other people jumping in — a practice known as ‘trademark squatting,’ common in China.”

Here is such an advisory from the law firm of White and Williams:

In order for a foreign business to assert trademark rights in China, the first and most important step to take is to register the specific trademark. China recognizes a “first to file” system, which generally means that the trademark right belongs to the first person who properly registers the mark in China. Unlike the United States, in China there is no prior-use or intent-to-use requirement needed before registering a trademark nor are common law rights recognized. In other words, any party, whether or not it intends to use the mark in the stream of commerce, may register a trademark in China.

So someone could have stepped up and trademarked Trump Escorts in China if Trump’s organization had not done so first. Denyer noted that others have set up protective trademarks in China using the Trump name “for products such as condoms, toilets, pesticide and paint, none of which have any business relation to the U.S. president.”

In a statement to The Post, Garten explained that the escort service trademark was indeed defensive.

“The Trump Organization has been actively enforcing its intellectual property rights in China for more than a decade, and its core real estate related trademarks have been registered in China since 2011 — many years before President Trump even announced his candidacy for office,” he said. “The latest registrations are a natural result of those long-standing, diligent efforts, and any suggestion to the contrary demonstrates a complete disregard of the facts as well as a lack of understanding of international trademark law.”

In other words: The Trump Organization’s trademark for escort services in China is defensive, meant to box out others who might want to set up Trump-branded escort services in the country, which has happened in other countries, as the example of “Trump Escorts” makes clear.

Of course, Trump now has another line of defense against being associated with escort services in China. Even if the Trump Organization were to use that trademark to set up escort services, Trump is not in charge of his eponymous business empire. Any unpopular business created between now and Jan. 20, 2021, has nothing to do with the president himself.