marmo.pngLast spring our blog examined trademarks and Geographic Indications (GIs) see Daniela Ampollini below, “Se è un marchio è un marchio, se è un’indicazione geografica, non può essere un marchio” and in December 2014 the overlap between GIs and trademarks was a conference topic for partner, Julia Holden at the INTA December meeting in Munich. Last week in Brussels a one day conference also discussed whether Geographical Indications (GI) should be extended to non agricultural products. While the conference findings and responses to the consultation Green Paper are yet to be published, this article looks at whether it could be useful to extend the stretch of GIs beyond its current limits of foodstuffs wines and spirits to additional non-agricultural products.

In supporting the extension of GI protection to non-agricultural products the Commission seeks to assist regional small scale producers and artisans in Europe. The European Commission cites the protection of highly skilled industries, jobs and quality products that range in their uniqueness from Italian Botticono marble to German cuckoo clocks.

The European Commission has yet to publish a conference paper on its website on this topic. However, on reading their Green Paper the EU’s stance is clear: Geographical Indications protect European producers from an ever increasing number of infringements of the rights of product originators. The widening of the scope of products entitled to geographical indication protection would increase the possibility to protect those rights holders and are thus, in the view of the European Commission, for the collective good of producers and consumers at large. The detailed study (328 pages) published in February 2013 notes that by broadening the provisions it will give protection to a further 834 products.

Non-agricultural products would include items such as glass from the city of Venice, leather from the city of Florence, ceramics from region of Emilia Romagna and building materials such as limestone from certain areas of Bulgaria – known as ‘Bulgarian Limestone’. According to the report around 834 products and the related industries would benefit from being able to apply a Geographical Indication stamp of quality on their product, based on their continued adherence to the product specifications as presently occurs under the existing GI Regulations for food and wine. Indeed wines have been protected since the 1970s, spirits since 1989 and foodstuff since 1992. There are also G.I labelling requirements which can enhance the products’ value.

The GI market is already worth Euro 54 billion since – it seems  – consumers are more attracted by quality products than simply ‘cheaper’ products. Meanwhile the European legislators are seeking to use this intellectual property tool to broaden this effect. In fact once registered, the GI does not need renewing and is a collective right – for the consortium of GI producers whether they be making French lace or selling Estonian Haapsalu – a type of Therapeutic mud.

Clearly however legislators will need to be wary of this somewhat unwieldy ‘IP legal animal’ since it grants a right in perpetuity to its Consortium members (as long as quality standards are maintained) unlike a trade mark right which requires regular 10 year renewal. With GI protection the risk of creating anti-competitive monopolies in certain product sectors is thus considerably higher. This will need to be borne in mind by legislators so as not to unnecessarily disrupt the market balance for other commercial players who operate in a similar field but who are not part of the protected consortium or part of specialist trade associations.