What's in a name? Apparently enough for a World Trade Organization panel to rule that the European Union could not discriminate against the United States for using geographic food names that indicate where they are produced.
The WTO panel also agreed that Europe could not deny U.S. trademark owners their rights. Geographical indications have a particular association with a product, such as Idaho potatoes or Florida oranges.
Acting United States Trade Representative Peter F. Allgeier praised a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel decision. In its report, the WTO panel agreed with the U.S. assertion that Europe's regulation for protecting “GIs” discriminates against U.S. products and producers and is therefore contrary to WTO rules. The panel also agreed with the United States that Europe could not, consistent with WTO rules, deny U.S. trademark owners their rights.
The panel stated that any exceptions to trademark rights for the use of registered GIs were narrow, and, for instance, limited to the actual GI name as registered.
“We're very pleased with this decision,” Allgeier says. “It's a clear win for American farmers and food processors. For years, Europe effectively had a ‘Do Not Apply’ sign directed at foreign producers. We believed that, under WTO rules, U.S. farmers, ranchers, and other food producers should have the same access to protection for ‘geographical indications’ as European food producers, and that the European system discriminated against us.
“Today, the WTO issued a crystal clear ruling that agreed with our view that Europe failed to provide Americans fair access,” said Allgeier. “We also welcome the panel's findings that protecting GIs need not and should not harm the rights of trademark owners. These findings are important to the rights of U.S. companies protecting their trademarks in Europe.”
Allgeier added that although there are more than 600 registered GIs in Europe (not counting those for wine and spirits), none are from non-EU countries. He also noted that USTR has worked with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and his staff on the issue of GIs.
“Geographical indications” (GIs) indicate the geographic origin of a product, where the product has some attribute or reputation associated with that origin. Examples could include Parma ham, Roquefort cheese, Florida oranges, Vidalia onions, or Idaho potatoes. The WTO TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) defines GIs as “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin.”
“Protection” of GIs can take many forms, but generally consists of insuring that consumers are not misled as to the geographic origin of the good.
The United States has a robust system for protecting geographical indications, primarily through rights provided to private rightholders under the U.S. trademark system. This system gives access to GI protection on a non-discriminatory basis and in a manner that fully protects the rights of trademark owners.
By contrast, the EC has a special regulatory regime for geographical indications, separate and apart from its trademark system, which depends in significant part on government intervention. It is this GI regime that the United States challenged in this dispute.
Separate from this dispute, there are on-going discussions in the context of the Doha round of WTO negotiations. The EC has advocated expanding GI obligations under the TRIPS Agreement. This panel has found, however, that the EC has not complied with its current TRIPS obligations. From the U.S. perspective, current TRIPS Agreement obligations are sufficient, and a priority should be placed instead on members meeting current obligations.