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WeWork starts legal action against rival UrWork over trademarks

[BEIJING] WeWork Cos has started legal action against shared-office landlord UrWork in London, accusing its fast-growing Chinese rival of infringing on its trademarks.

The world's fifth-largest startup filed a claim with the UK's High Court of Justice's Chancery Division using London-based law firm Mishcon de Reya LLP on July 26. The New York-based office sharing company said its rival was "passing off", which can take place when one business misrepresents their services as being the product of another.

The legal action sets up a clash between two shared office startups racing to open locations around the world. WeWork remains the largest global provider of such spaces - known for their coffee and beer kegs - but UrWork is dominant on its home turf and preparing to accelerate its own international expansion by entering London, Singapore, New York and Los Angeles.

"WeWork has invested substantial time and money building a globally recognisable brand. Our name is distinctive and well known," the New York-based company said in an email. "It is a valuable asset, is a source of pride to the company, and represents an important lifestyle choice for our members. That is why we have taken action in the UK."

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The Chinese company denied suggestions it was infringing on WeWork's rights.

"UrWork has been used for more than two years and is a well-known trademark and brand," the Beijing-based startup said in a statement. "UrWork is an interpretation of the shared working industry and philosophy, its business is to share office space and services." "'Work' is an open commonly used word; the trademarks relate to 'UR' and 'we' and they're very different so WeWork's claim of trademark infringement has no legal basis."

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a string of intellectual property complaints filed against Chinese companies in past decades: the country's corporations have been accused of knocking off everything from cars to DVDs.

WeWork is now amassing funds to bankroll a global push that's taken it to about 15 countries. It scored US$760 million at what's said to be a US$20 billion valuation in its latest funding round, and just unveiled a deal to buy Singapore's SpaceMob and open its first locations in South-east Asia.

In recent weeks, it announced a US$500 million investment with Japan's SoftBank Group Corp and Hony Capital to expand its business in China - UrWork's home turf.

But UrWork is also well-funded and popular at home having raised US$236 million in the last three months alone. Apart from opening new locations, the Chinese company - backed by Sequoia Capital and a fund linked to billionaire Jack Ma's Ant Financial - is also expanding into related lines of business such as legal services for startups.

The two-year-old firm now has about 78 offices across 20 Chinese cities, while WeWork has just a handful of locations in Shanghai and Beijing, with several more on the drawing board.