Why Did Apple Really Pull the iPad from Amazon China?

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Darley Shen / Reuters

Apple iPad posters are seen at a dealership as a customer tries out an Apple Mac in Wuhan, Hubei province February 16, 2012.

The timing couldn’t be worse: Amidst stories that Chinese officials are pulling Apple’s iPad from select stores over trademark infringement, Apple’s iPad unexpectedly vanished from Amazon China earlier this week. The blogosphere’s assumption: Cupertino’s arm was twisted after a Chinese court in December rejected Apple’s claim that China-based Proview Technology, a computer screen manufacturer, had violated Apple’s trademark to the iPad name. Proview has actively sought to block Apple sales of the iPad country-wide, and the Amazon event earlier this week looked to be a major coup.

The truth turns out to be more nuanced: Apple has told Reuters that the iPads were pulled at its behest simply because Amazon isn’t an authorized reseller of iPads in either China or the United States.

I wasn’t watching, so can’t say what was available on Amazon a week ago, but run a search for ‘iPad’ on Amazon.com today and all you’ll turn up are pages of accessories, versions of the tablet sold by third-party vendors and, ironically, a high-ranked listing for Amazon’s own Kindle Fire tablet (and, depending on your vantage, iPad competitor).

(MORE: When Is an iPad Not an iPad? When It’s Sold in China, Says Court)

Another online retailer, Sunning, has also pulled the iPad from its site, though it’s unclear at this point why. The iPad is still available through other Chinese online retailers, as well as from Apple’s China-based retail and online stores.

Apple claims it’s the rightful owner of the iPad trademark in China, of course. It shelled out a trifling $55,000 to buy the European rights to the ‘iPad’ trademark from Proview’s parent company a few years ago, believing that it included rights to the term for all of China.

But in 2010, Proview filed suit against Apple, claiming it never gave up the rights to the name, which its parent company registered in China in 2001. And Proview’s been bulldogging Cupertino ever since: It’s so far sued Apple for 10 billion yuan (about US$1.6 billion), requested a formal apology and just asked Chinese customs officials to block the import and export of the iPad to/from the country.

The assumption among analysts is that Apple’s going to have to settle. For how much is anyone’s guess, but Apple has enormous incentive to. If Chinese customs officials were to block iPad exports, it would disrupt Apple’s iPad supply chain worldwide (though Chinese officials have said it would be “difficult to implement a ban because many Chinese consumers love Apple product[s]”). That, and Apple is pretty bank-flush, admitting to having nearly $100 billion in cash (for scorekeepers, that’s twice as much as Google). How long until we hear some kind of deal’s been struck is probably just a matter of time.

MORE: Report: Apple Expected to Unveil iPad 3 in Early March