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What’s in a name? Plenty, Ethiopia tells Starbucks

Published Nov 9, 2006 8:02 PM

How does the “free trade” pushed by U.S. corporations really work?

Ethiopian coffee farmers don’t make enough in one whole day to buy a latte at Starbucks. But the Ethiopian government has a plan to change that. It’s seeking trademarks on Ethiopia’s famous coffee names in hopes of getting a larger share of their retail price. The charity group Oxfam estimates that the trademarks could bring the Ethiopian coffee industry and farmers an additional $88 million per year.

Starbucks, though, is standing in the way.

Last year the Ethiopian government filed applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe coffee names. While Ethiopia received a trademark for Yirgacheffe in August, the National Coffee Association and Starbucks are opposing registration of the other two names.

“Coffee shops can sell Sidamo and Harar coffees for up to $26 a pound because of the beans’ specialty status,” Tadesse Meskela, head of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, said in an Oct. 26 Oxfam press release. “But Ethiopian coffee farmers only earn between 60 cents to $1.10 for their crop, barely enough to cover the cost of production. I think most people would see that as an injustice.”

U.S. corporations are fiercely protective of what they regard as their intellectual property. Patents on AIDS drugs have prevented the people of Africa from obtaining low-cost versions of the medicines. But when it comes to the resources of poor countries, they have a double standard.

Starbucks is calling on Ethiopia to register the coffee names as geographic indicators–names given to indicate the specific place where a food, wine or spirit comes from. The PTO has registered more than 100 geographic indications, including Darjeeling for tea cultivated in Darjeeling, India. Once someone receives a registration, only products produced in that region may carry the geographic name.

Starbucks said in a press release that geographic certification systems “are far more effective than registering trademarks for geographically descriptive terms, which is actually contrary to general trademark law and custom.”

That’s not what Starbucks was saying two years ago when it tried to trademark one of Ethiopia’s coffee names. In 2004 it filed an application to register “Shirkina Sun-Dried Sidamo” as a trademark. According to PTO’s website, the application was abandoned in July. The Guardian reported Oct. 26 that the PTO had rejected Ethiopia’s application because the word “Sidamo” was already in Starbucks’ application. The article says that once Starbucks’ application became inactive, the National Coffee Association opposed Ethiopia’s application at the request of Starbucks. The NCA and Starbucks both denied that the firm asked the association to intervene.

Light Years IP, a non-profit group that seeks to alleviate poverty by helping producers in developing countries gain ownership of their intellectual property and use it to increase their export income, has been helping the Ethiopian government register trademarks for Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe.

While these gourmet coffees are sold at a premium price at stores like Starbucks, Ethiopia is exporting them at prices close to those of commodity coffee. “Ethiopia receives only around 6 percent of the retail price their fine coffees earn in foreign markets,” Light Years IP says on its Web site. “In comparison, producers of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee capture 45 percent of their product’s retail price.”

Light Years IP says Ethiopia has already been granted trademarks in more than 30 countries and plans to license the coffee names to individual companies around the world free of charge. Now that’s a deal you’re not likely to see at Starbucks.