Some readers have complained that I don’t pay enough attention to issues surrounding intellectual property. And it’s certainly true that I’m not as focused on these issues as some friends are.
But every so often, IP in Africa makes the news. Alas, this story is not about the compulsory licensing of anti-retroviral drugs or physics textbooks. It’s about coffee.
Starbucks sells a lot of coffee. Some of their premium coffee is Ethiopian, featuring beans from the Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe regions. Purchasing this coffee helps support Ethiopian coffee farmers… and in 2004, Oxfam worked with Starbucks to lessen poverty in coffee farming communities.
So it’s a bit of a surprise today to see Oxfam excoriating Starbucks for their relationship to Ethiopian coffee. The issue at hand isn’t pricing or the living conditions of farmers – it’s about trademarks and names.
Last year, the Ethiopian government filed trademark applications to protect the names “Sidamo”, “Harar” and “Yirgacheffe” – the hope was to prevent unscrupulous coffee dealers from buying inexpensive beans from other countries and selling them as “Sidamo”, whether or not they emerged from the region.
…Ron Layton, head of Light Years IP, a Washington-based intellectual property rights organisation that is advising the Ethiopian government, said that in 2004 Starbucks had filed a trademark application with the word “Sidamo” to the USPTO. The USPTO then judged that Ethiopia’s application a year later had to be rejected because the word was already the subject of Starbucks’ application.
Right. Obviously Starbucks was using the word “Sidamo” to refer to coffee long before the coffee growers of Sidaro were. And a search for use of the Yirgacheffe name in US markets would obviously never find anyone using that mark previously. (That was sarcasm, for all the sarcasm impaired out there…)
It’s a little too easy to beat up on Starbucks for protecting intellectual property – if anything, people should be beating up US trademark law and the relentlessness of corporate America as a whole in protecting their brands. And just to be very clear – no one is accusing Starbucks of misrepresenting their coffee, calling a Columbian bean a Sidamo.
But Starbucks’s first response seems lame, at best. They suggest that trademarking their beans is a lousy strategy for the Ethiopian government to pursue – which may well be right. And they offer their willingness to work with the government on a coffee certification program… of course, they made this offer yesterday, as it became clear that Oxfam was going to take them to the woodshed. And they claim they didn’t block the trademark application. (They didn’t have to, if the explanation is that their prior application blocked the Ethiopian government’s application.)
Does it really make sense for Starbucks to try to protect these brands? Wouldn’t they get better press from withdrawing their applications and then working with Ethiopian coffee growers to build some sort of regional certification program?
Then again, Starbucks hasn’t shown a great deal of enthusiasm for extending operations into Ethiopia in the past. Ethiopian entrepeneur Tseday Asrat, a devoted Starbucks fan, attempted to open a Starbucks franchise in Addis Ababa – the company turned down her requests for a franchise, and she opened a Starbucks-inspired store called Kaldi’s. According to the New York Times:
Officials at the Starbucks Coffee Company were not thrilled when they learned about Kaldi’s. “Even where it may seem playful, this type of misappropriation of a company’s name (and reputation) is both derivative and dilutive of their trademark rights,” a company spokeswoman, Lara Wyss, said in an e-mail, adding that the company preferred to resolve such conflicts amicably.
To their credit, Starbucks didn’t sue. Perhaps they’ll find a way to resolve this conflict amicably as well.
The absurdity of the situation, as I read it, is the need for a very poor nation to protect “intellectual property” they’ve owned for centuries in an expensive foreign market. The coffee situation makes me think of the notorious “turmeric patent“, where Indian scientists and attorneys had to present ancient Sanskrit manuscripts to overturn a US patent that introduced the “novel” use of turmeric for wound healing, a process used for thousands of years in India. The patent was overturned, but it’s a huge barrier for poor countries to have to litigate bogus patents in US court.
(I’ve written at painful length about turmeric and other “indigenous IP rights issues” in the past on this blog…)