Business World

Branding Origins

Many coffee and tea origins constantly contend to protect their name. Darjeeling tea producers, for example, have fought for years to keep their product pure and safe against fraudulent use. The Jamaican coffee industry has had several legal battles against people selling counterfeit Blue Mountain coffee, and the Hawaiian coffee community is currently setting up additional legislation to protect their Kona beans in blends. Even the terms “Java” and “Mocha,” both geographic place names of coffee’s origins, have been synonyms for any coffee for over 150 years.

The Ethiopian government is seeking to acquire trademarks for the terms “Harrar” and “Sidamo,” after having successfully done so for “Yirgacheffe” in the U.S. All three names are of Ethiopian coffee producing regions, which Ethiopia argues are also the names of the coffees themselves. Typically, these coffees are blended at the mill or co-op with many other farmers’ lots from the same region. This was part of the reasoning behind the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) denial of the Sidamo and Harrar marks. This denial seems to be consistent with U.S. trademark and patent law, which views regional geographic terms as descriptive of the product. However, there is a loophole that permits the awarding of trademarks providing they have an “acquired distinctiveness.”

The idea to trademark the names of origins was developed by Light Years Intellectual Property, who claims they are “a non-profit organization, dedicated to helping impoverished nations secure their intellectual property.” Oxfam has joined forces with Light Years IP and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) in an attempt to bring media attention to the issue. Meanwhile, Starbucks Coffee and the National Coffee Association (NCA) have been portrayed as “the bad guys,” taking heat in numerous newspapers and vilified as obstructing Ethiopia’s attempts at trademarks. Both organizations deny these allegations.

The NCA, SCAA and Starbucks all oppose Ethiopia’s efforts to trademark the regional coffee names. The NCA’s argument adds paternalistic protectionism of Ethiopia’s coffee trade to the legal issue of geographical indicators being registered as trademarks. The association has filed a protest with the USPTO in opposition of any attempt by the EIPO to appeal the previous decision denying trademarks for “Harrar” and “Sidamo.” Meanwhile, the EIPO, Light Years IP and Oxfam are working together to influence consumers worldwide that Ethiopia is right in claiming their intellectual property (in the forms of these regional coffee names) in whatever way they see fit. The NCA, SCAA and Starbucks, they argue, are obstructing their trademark initiative in order to protect their own financial interests.

At press time, talks continue between Starbucks, as well as other roasters and the trade associations in an effort to satisfy both sides. Our esteemed writers, Donald Schoenholt, Timothy Castle and Joel Starr are currently researching this project for further T&C coverage.

Jane McCabe
Editor & Co-Publisher

Tea & Coffee - January, 2007

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