Nice article in the Wall Street Journal today by Anne Jolis on a trademark brouhaha between France and Australia that highlights some of the absurdities of the French (and other countries’) protection of geographic designations. Usually France is the country protecting its local food, wine and even chickens by ensuring that other countries’ imports can’t use a French geographical or place name description, such as Roquefort cheese or Champagne.
But this time the Australians and New Zealanders have decided that turnabout is fair play. Acting on a New Zealand complaint, Australia’s trademark office has refused to okay the import of a French wine called “Kiwi Cuvee 2007 Sauvignon Blanc” because using the name could deceive or confuse consumers into thinking it was produced in Kiwi Country, i.e., New Zealand.
France is not alone in its protection of its local and regional products; the UK, Germany, Italy, Poland, and many other countries have their own registries. The European Union also has its own system of registration and protection of geographic specialties, such as for the Polish Truskawka kaszubska lub Kaszëbskô malëna. Even the World Trade Organization has limited protection for certain geographic designations under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The U.S. has a few such geographic protections in place, for instance, for Vidalia onions, Florida orange juice, and Idaho potatoes.
Jolis provides some of the arguments proponents use to defend the practice but also suggests a private standards-setting alternative to bureaucratic procedures and protectionism:
So the justification for what is effectively a trademark is that a product’s origin partly defines the product itself.
Perhaps there is truth to that. But then, nothing stops producers from these prized regions from simply applying for and defending regular trademarks. This would eliminate the temptation for every local producer in the world to seek privileged status for otherwise ordinary place-names. Producers of Parma ham or feta cheese could very easily certify their products as meeting privately developed standards of quality and brand them accordingly, without the global bureaucracy that has grown up around “geographical indications.”