GI Proponents Assess Progress, Challenges; French Minister Blasts Large-Scale Agriculture

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International fair, GI, AOBordeaux, France – In a stronghold of French gastronomy and famous regional products, an industry organisation lobbying for the protection of geographical indications chose this week to convene its general assembly and set the goals for future actions.

For its tenth anniversary, the Organization for an International Geographical Indications Network (oriGIn) met on 20 May for its general assembly in Aquitaine, a southwest region of France, which is said to hold the world highest concentration of geographical indications (GIs) and appellations of origin (AOs).

OriGIn held its general assembly at the Bordeaux Agricultural Fair presenting many GIs. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

OriGIn held its general assembly at the Bordeaux Agricultural Fair presenting many GIs. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

GI names of products indicate that those products have a specific geographical origin from which they derive particular qualities, reputation or characteristics. In Europe, those products can benefit from two main types of protection: as GIs (protected geographical indications – PGIs) or AOs (protected designations of origin – PDOs). AOs follow stricter rules than GIs, in particular that products must be produced, processed and prepared in a specific geographical area.

OriGIn’s general assembly proceeded to re-elect outgoing President Ramón González Figueroa, director general of the Consejo Regulador del Tequila. He was first elected in November 2010.

The general assembly also delivered the “Bordeaux declaration” [pdf] outlining the orientation and priorities for oriGIn over the next two years.

Lack of Protection of GI Internet Domains

The group voiced particular concerns about what it called the abusive use of GIs over the internet, and blamed the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the internet technical oversight body. Massimo Vittori, managing director of oriGIn, cast doubts on the international dimension of ICANN, presenting it as a private-run US-based organisation. The fact that it has not replied to oriGIn requests shows a lack of accountability, he said.

One of the issues is that the ICANN system of assignation does not consider GIs as prior rights. For example, he said, if somebody registered coca-cola.com this could be challenged by the company through trademark law. However, it would not be the case for GIs, in contravention of the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which recognises GIs as IP rights.

Many GIs and AOs are supported by associations which organise promotional events. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

Many GIs and AOs are supported by associations which organise promotional events. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

He also cited ICANN’s initiative to greatly expand the number of domains on the internet. “After the dot” lies another issue, he said, as private companies could acquire the right to manage a domain such as .wine, for example, giving private actors the right to use the domain. This could further affect double-level names like for example – if it existed – bordeaux.wine. Who would then check if this domain really relates to the geographical indications, he asked.

Hopes For Progress on GIs at WTO, WIPO

The Bordeaux declaration calls for WTO member states to “make clear and significant progress toward the effective multilateral protection of GIs at the next Ministerial Conference.” Vittori said that there was a “certain fatigue after 10 years” of inconclusive discussions at the WTO, but the newly elected Director General Brazilian Amb. Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo, who should take over in September (IPW, IP-Watch Briefs, 14 May 2013), and the upcoming ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December, might give a new impulse to the debate. Brazil, Vittori said, is favourable to GIs, with two or three registrations each month.

OriGIn members hailed the progress achieved by the World Intellectual Property Organization Working Group on the Development of the Lisbon System. WIPO member states are seeking to revise the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin and their International Registration.

The main goal of the exercise is to widen the membership of the Lisbon agreement, which currently comprises 28 members. In particular, the working group is seeking to include GIs in the instruments which up to now only covered AOs, and give both the same level of protection. At the last meeting, the group decided to recommend to the Lisbon Union in September that a high-level negotiating meeting be convened in 2015 to approve the amendments (IPW, WIPO, 2 May 2013).

OriGIn members were invited to taste an array of French GI and AO cheeses. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

OriGIn members were invited to taste an array of French GI and AO cheeses. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

EU Progress in 2012, More in 2013

In March 2012, the European Commission published a new regulation dubbed the “Milk Package,” establishing that under certain conditions, the supply of cheese registered as GIs or AOs could be regulated through the control of volumes, to safeguard value-added and quality of those products, which was approved by oriGIn.

The year 2013 is of key importance at the EU level, said Vittori, in particular to the reform of the EU Common Agriculture Policy, expected to be put in place in January 2014.

Also of interest is the reform of the EU Community Trademark. According to Vittori, in spite of a clearly defined regulation making a prior GI or AO absolute grounds for refusal of a trademark registration, in practice it is sometimes not the case (Article 7 of EU Council regulation 207/2009/EC of February 2009 – Current Community Trademark rules). The reform proposes to clarify the issue (IPW, European Policy, 28 March 2013).

In the Bordeaux declaration, oriGIn also calls for a “sound community legal framework providing non agricultural GIs with an effective protection against misappropriation and counterfeiting.” Vittori said that oriGIn had participated in an EU study on the topic.

French Agricultural Minister Advocates GIs

French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll spoke at the event and promoted a strong link between agriculture and territory and came out against agricultural trademarks and profit-based agriculture.

The question, he said, is whether the only way to valorise agriculture and differentiate products is linked to a sole commercial goal of companies that invest in agriculture. Can production processes and the choice of a few elements of production define a product and a trademark, he asked, alluding to a “famous soda,” which has a particular process and uses a certain number of ingredients.

French Minister Stéphane Le Foll a strong supporter of GIs and AOs. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

French Minister Stéphane Le Foll a strong supporter of GIs and AOs. (Photo Credit: Catherine Saez, IP-Watch)

The alternative way, he said, is an agriculture which represents history and traditions, a link between products and a territory, a “terroir” (soil considered to have particular agricultural aptitudes and offering specific characteristics to products grown on it), which is a qualitative element of the finished product.

He warned against profit-focussed agriculture winning over. Even in Europe, he said, some member states have difficulty seeing that agriculture must have a link with the territory.

It is a worldwide fight against the proponents of a commercially-focused agriculture and trademarks, he said. In Africa, in Latin and Central America, it is a political and conceptual challenge.

It is now known, Le Foll said, that in order to tackle the issue of food security, “we will need all of the agricultures of the world,” he said. “Those who imagined that the issue of food security would be solved” by specialising areas and by planning for transferable agricultural areas, betting on maximum productivity, are wrong, Le Foll said, adding that the last 30 years have shown that these systems are not working.

The current bilateral negotiations between the EU and the United States bring into question the protection of GIs, he said. If a bilateral agreement were to limit the possibility of differentiation of products, “it would be a terrible renunciation,” he concluded.

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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