GI Experts Speak Of Value But Concede International Accord Hard To Reach

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Bangkok, Thailand – Experts on geographical indications ended two days of discussions here by acknowledging greatly the benefit of GIs to national economies and cultural heritages, but conceded that it has been tough to reach a multilateral agreement on the protection of this type of intellectual property. [Updated]

The Worldwide Symposium on Geographical Indications, co-organised by the World Intellectual Property Organization and Thailand’s Department of Intellectual Property, ended on 28 March without coming up with concrete steps on how to advance the current stalled negotiations on an international agreement on GI.

“I think the issue is emotional from what we can see in the past two days,” said Loretta Dormal-Marino, deputy director general for international affairs at the European Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. She said debates on GI protection have amounted to an “ideological battle” between its proponents and opponents.

Craig Thorn, senior advisor at the United States’ Consortium for Common Food Names, said he believes the stalemate could be resolved if both sides became more flexible. The US, which does not have a GI law, prefers to protect GIs under its trademark system.

However, Dormal-Marino, saying that “GI is a much powerful tool than trademark for IP protection,” told the meeting that the European Union would continue to pursue a multilateral agreement while negotiating GI protection under its bilateral talks with various non-EU governments.

GIs are protected under the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Two GI issues are being debated at the WTO: creating a multilateral register for wines and spirits; and extending the higher (Article 23 of the TRIPS Agreement) level of protection to other products beyond wines and spirits. Negotiations have been conducted under both the WTO and WIPO.

Geographical indications or GIs are names of places, or in some countries also words associated with a place, used to identify products that come from these places, signifying the product’s quality, reputation or other characteristics. Examples are “champagne”, “tequila” or “roquefort”.

Thu-Lang Tran Wasescha, counselor in the WTO Intellectual Property Division, told the meeting negotiations for the protection of wines and spirits and other GI products have encountered with “constructive ambiguity”, with no clear definition for such terms as a “multilateral” system of register, what would be “eligible” under such protection, and which countries are seen as “participating in the negotiations.”

She said a GI name in one country could be regarded as a generic name in another, which would refuse to grant protection to products using such a name.

Marcus Höpperger, director of law and legislative advice division in WIPO’s Brands and Designs Sector, said the sticky issues in the current GI debates remained scope of protection, GI names being seen as a generic term, and the relationship between GIs and trademarks.

[Updated] Matthijs Geuze, head of the Lisbon Registry at WIPO, said that negotiations on GIs at WIPO meanwhile are not stalled and are moving forward. Talks are advancing on a draft revised Lisbon Agreement and could conclude in 2014 or 2015, he said. The next session of the Lisbon Working Group will take place from 29 April to 3 May, and the working document for the session requests the group to, where possible, recommend the Lisbon Union Assembly to take the necessary decisions allowing the holding of a diplomatic conference in 2014 or 2015. In its last meeting in December, the working group made significant progress on the scope of protection (IPW, WIPO, 7 December 2012). The next meeting is expected to address two other divisive issues: how to deal with generics and with prior trademarks, he said. [end update]

Earlier in the symposium, speakers from both developed and developing countries talked in great detail about how GI products have contributed to their countries’ gross domestic product (GDP), employment and the livelihood of their farmers or producers who make the products.

Alan Park, legal advisor for the Scotch Whisky Association in the United Kingdom, said GI protection is also a protection of jobs and cultural heritage, and told the meeting the UK sells more than one billion bottles of Scotch whisky a year, 90 percent of which is exported. Its export value in 2011 amounted to over US$6.6 billion. He added that the whisky supports one in 50 Scottish jobs and is among the UK’s top five manufactured exports.

Hasita De Alwis, director for promotion at the Sri Lanka Tea Board, said Ceylon tea, which has a certification mark, is Sri Lanka’s third largest foreign exchange earner, generating an annual income of US$1.5 billion amounting to 2 percent of this South Asian nation’s GDP. He said the tea industry in his country directly or indirectly employs two million people, accounting for 10 percent of its population.

After obtaining a certification mark for Ceylon tea domestically in 2010, Sri Lanka Tea Board has tried to obtain a GI protection or a certification mark for the tea in 20 foreign countries. It has so far succeeded only in Jordan and Lebanon while the US has argued that the name is a generic one. Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest world tea producer after China, India and Kenya.

Larry Sait Muling, senior director for marketing and commercialisation division at the Malaysian Pepper Board, said Sarawak pepper, a product registered in 2003 under the GI law of Malaysia, is able to penetrate high-end markets around the world, though Vietnam is the world’s largest pepper producer. “Farmers directly benefit from our GIs,” he said. “Whatever benefit we get, it will go to our farmers.”

Cheng Yiqun, of Legal Affairs Division, Trademark Office of China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told the meeting that GIs in China are protected under its trademark system. By the end of December 2012, her trademark office had registered or preliminarily approved 1,754 GIs, including 42 GIs from abroad. She also said GI protection has benefited China’s economy and farmers.

The two-day symposium also heard stories from countries which are still learning to get started with GI protection for their farmers’ products.

Getachew Mengistie, an intellectual property lawyer from Ethiopia, told the meeting that while African nations have many products that could be registered as GIs – such as coffee from Ethiopia, tea from Kenya and vanilla from Uganda – their producers were still not aware of its value and the governments lack any legal mechanism for such protection. He called for support from national governments and international organisations to help African producers to put in place a GI protection.

The meeting also heard that GI protection, which traditionally covers mainly agricultural goods, has been extended to various non-agricultural goods and even services.

Massimo Vittori, secretary general of the Geneva-based Organisation for an International Geographical Indications Network (Origin), discussed non-agricultural products. He said India, for instance, has registered 178 GIs, of which about 120 are non-agricultural products, while Höpperger of WIPO said Brazil has registered a service as a GI.

Sinfah Tunsarawuth may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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