It doesn’t matter how powerful Superman appears in movies and comics. He’s no match for the Indonesian legal system.
DC Comics has discovered this the hard way, by taking an Indonesian food and beverage company to court over their unauthorised use of Superman branding on an obscure line of chocolate bars. This all began on April 3 last year, when DC Comics filed a claim against PT Marxing Fam Makmur with the Central Jakarta Commercial Court, requesting they cease using both the name “Superman” and all its associated branding.
Surprisingly for them, they lost and the Central Jakarta Commercial Court ruled in favour of Marxing, declaring there were no grounds for the claim. DC’s lawyers then appealed the decision in Indonesia’s Supreme Court, only to lose again.
According to the Supreme Court, DC’s claim was unacceptable because they wanted two things at once. Firstly they wanted PT Marxing Fam Makmur to cease producing chocolate bars that claimed any relation to Superman, but secondly DC wanted to become legal owners of the Superman name and trademark in Indonesia. But the panel of judges concluded: “the attorney-in-fact has done an act that exceeds the authority given by the authoriser.”
What that essentially means is that DC's lawyers wanted more than they were authorised to get—and Indonesia is a country where bootleg businesses have traditionally always won over multinational goliaths.
Another Japanese brand, Onitsuka Tiger shoes (which is part of ASICS), discovered this in 2010. Two Jakarta-based businessmen, Theng Tjhing Djie and Liong Hian Fa, registered the Onitsuka Tiger name and logo almost 20 years after Onitsuka Tiger was founded in Japan. The two men then faced a lawsuit bankrolled by ASICS, only to win the case.
Several other multinational brands like Toyota, IKEA, Monster Energy drinks, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Pierre Cardin have also become victims of the Indonesian legal system. In all those cases judges ruled in favour of local brands that clearly just stole their names and trademarks from elsewhere.
In essence, this is because Indonesian courts tend to place a higher value on local businesses over large multinational companies—a tendency that often seems counterintuitive to foreign lawyers. In the eyes of the Indonesian courts, whoever registers the trademark first has the right to claim originality, even if the larger company has existed for decades.
According to Ragil Yoga Edi, Head of Intellectual Property Rights at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), loose laws around intellectual property basically ignore the power and size of multinational corporations. “If the real brand holder forgets to register their trademark in other countries, it’s not impossible for someone else to register the same brand in Indonesia,” he explains simply.
But not everyone is so cool with this current state of affairs. Spokespeople with the Employers’ Association of Indonesia (APINDO) have argued the policy essentially legalises piracy and theft of intellectual property.
As Edi admits, the system also creates an opportunity for bootleg companies to use the court’s ruling to blackmail companies into buying their brands back. Those who win the dispute can force the legitimate trademark owners to buy their companies at much higher prices than market value.
Several years ago, in the midst of the ASICS dispute, APINDO’s chairperson Hariyadi Sukamdani publicly requested the government to fix their flawed policies on intellectual property.
“Indonesian government or court must prioritise the original brand holder,” he said. “Foreign companies cannot always supervise the use of their trademarks in other countries.”
And yet, the ruling on Superman chocolates suggests the Indonesian Government wasn’t listening.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.