A lopsided legal battle for companies named ‘Samseong’

Posted on : 2011-03-29 15:06 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Samsung uses corporate clout to root out long-established companies with the same name

By Roh Hyung-suk, Staff Writer 


“They obstinately asked me to change the company’s name, citing the law. I was so angry, but it was too much for a small office to fight.”

An exasperated Jang Sun-yong, head of Samaseong Architects, one of the oldest architectural firms in South Korea, so pleaded his case, complaining of the utter difficulties he is experiencing changing his company’s name. In September, at the insistence of the Samsung Group, the office changed its name from Samseong (same Korean characters but different Chinese characters) to Samaseong, but most of the design requests, consultations and other major job communications come in the name of Samseong, which the company has used for around 40 years. Staff members are also unaccustomed to the name, leading to continued confusion.

It was early last year that the company was first asked to change its name. The office received a notice from YOU ME Patent & Law Firm, a firm hired by the Samsung Group to manage its corporate name.

“The Samsung Group patented its trademark and maintains exclusive rights to its use, therefore the Samseong architecture office may not use the same name, even if the Chinese character word roots were different,” the notice stated. “If the office does not change its name, we will be forced to respond with legal action.”

Jang said he was at first perplexed. Former office head, his father, had a close relationship with late Samsung founder Lee Byung-chull: this was because not only did he design Samsung’s Hoam Art Museum, but he also advised on other architectural projects. It is a well-known story in architecture circles that even Samoo Architects and Engineering, which is viewed in the architecture world as a virtual subsidiary of the Samsung Group, chose the name “Samoo” mindful of Samsung.

“At first, I opposed adding another character to the front or back of my company’s name,” said Jang. “I told Samsung that our company’s name had been used for over 40 years and that we had a special history with the Samsung family, but it was no use.”

“It seemed if we hired a lawyer to fight a lawsuit, it would take several years and would be difficult for a small company to handle. We endured and changed the name, but we are experiencing several difficulties.” 

About the name change, YOU ME Patent & Law Firm said they had no choice but to take measures as long as the Samsung Group brand name is exclusively registered in most businesses. Since last year, Samsung - in order to protect its brand - has been contacting companies using the Samseong name without legal registration to request they change their company names. Samsaseong Architects was one example.

The word samsung is a largely generic word meaning thee stars. Indeed, electronics giant and rival LG’s former name was geumsung, gold star prior to its merger with Lucky, becoming LG.

“From 1945 until now, the Samsung Group has continued to acquire trademark rights with the Samsung name, and since the company has spent large amounts of money continuously managing its brand, its request is justified,” said an official from You Me Patent & Law Firm. “We are only targeting companies that were actively using the Samseong name online and offline; we have not filed requests against hole-in-the-wall shops and small businesspeople.”

The Samsung Group largely finished its name-changing operation against firms using the Samseong name in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province last year. It plans to do the same in other regions starting this year.

Within architecture circles, there is criticism that the standard for the name-change demand is arbitrary, and that since most firms have been conventionally using the Samseong name for decades, when the concept of trademark registration was unclear, the name change demands are high-handed. In fact, there are just a handful of publishing companies named “Samseong” unrelated to the Samsung Group that have registered their trademarks, including Samseong Publishing and Samsung Books. A figure in the architecture world said special exceptions should be recognized for companies that have continued to use the same name.

Kim Jong-gyu, former chairman of Samsung Books, said, “Given the negative public opinion regarding major corporations, the unreasonable requests for a name change are just inviting trouble.”


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