Geographical indications are often associated with amazing journeys. While today you can easily buy such unique products in a shop close to you or even online, traveling to the places where they are made to discover the people, the culture, the places behind these products maintains a magical charm. Let us dream for a few seconds: From China, to enjoy a cup of Longjing tea, to Scotland for a glass Scotch whisky. From the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantova in Italy to taste the unique Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, to Nariño in the western part Colombia to discover one the local coffee, passing by Napa in California for a glass of Napa Valley wine and, why not, by Cameroun, in the forest of Kilum-Ijim, for a spoon of miel d’Oku.
Likewise, if one looks at geographical indications from an historical perspective, another incredible journey has been made. Focusing on the last 20 years, here are some examples: The increasing interest showed by consumers worldwide for quality products deeply rooted in specific geographical locations; The recognition of geographical indications as a category of intellectual property rights within the World Trade Organization and the adoption of a large number of national legislation specifically conceived for geographical indications. The recognition of an increasing number of geographical indications at the national level and the solid protection achieved through bilateral agreements covering more and more a large number of products from all sectors. Last but not least, earlier this year, the adoption of the Geneva Act of the Lisbon Agreement within the World Intellectual Property Organization might pave the way to the establishment of a truly international registry for the recognition and protection of geographical indications.
As a matter of fact, tremendous progress has been accomplished. But the journey is far from being completed. Important challenges will have to be faced by geographical indications in the years to come.First of all, the problem of compatibility of international rules. The proliferation of bilateral and plurilateral agreements covering geographical indications might generate conflict of norms and problems to reconcile them at the multilateral level. This might create legal uncertainty detrimental to business and consumers. To some extent related to this issue, there is the challenge of ensuring that trademark offices around the world apply correctly and consistently the relevant laws concerning the management of trademark applications conflicting with previously recognized geographical indications.
The Internet poses as well numerous challenges. On the one hand, the e-commerce represents a tremendous opportunity for geographical indications. Meanwhile, growing risks arise in terms of counterfeiting and infringements. In this respect, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture has pioneered an interesting agreement with eBay. In the framework of the Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program, when an unauthorized use of Italian geographical indication is detected on the e-Bay platform, the Ministry – by its own initiative and/or at the request of a an Italian geographical indications group –sends eBay an infringement notice and the products at issue are successfully removed from the platform. Such an agreement represents an interesting model for other relevant actors. In another area related to the Internet – the generic top-level domains attributed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the road to follow is less clear.
The recent process of attribution of new generic top-level domains, managed by ICANN – a non-for-profit private corporation operating outside the supervision of International Organizations – has dramatically increased the challenges in terms of counterfeiting and misappropriation for geographical indications (e.g.: new delegated strings such as “.food”, “.pizza”, “.wine” and “.coffee” just to name a few). The major challenge here is to promote at the global level – in the context of the Internet governance debate –a thorough discussion on ICANN governance as well as on the most effective ways to ensure the effective protection of geographical indications. In particular, both new generic top-level domains – as well the system of traditional ones, such as “.com”, “.int”, “.org”, etc. – should fully take into account geographical indications as prior rights deserving protection in case of irregular use a second level domains.
Like any other economic sector, the issue of sustainability, in all its components (economic social and environmental) will have to be tackled in the next few years by geographical indications. The major challenge here is to demonstrate in a scientific and objective way that geographical indications generate economic value added for their territories and communities without encroaching in an unsustainable way on the environment.
Finally, at the European level several challenges still have to be faced. One in particular is represented by the harmonization of rules concerning non-agricultural geographical indications, unique handicrafts such as vetro du Murano and pierre de Bourgogne. On 06 October 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the possible extension of geographical indication protection of the European Union to non-agricultural products. Time seems to be ripe for the establishment of a community system for the recognition and protection of geographical indications for non-agricultural products. The challenge though will be to make sure such a system is simple and transparent, recognizes the link with the territory of production as an essential element, and does not create confusion with the existing European geographical indications systems.
To respond in a pragmatic a coherent way to these and other challenges and continue the incredible journey represented by geographical indications, a strong coordination and cooperation among the major sector’s stakeholders will be required. Geographical indications groups from different countries and sector, associations, foundations, academia, public authorities, let us make sure we work together with renewed coordination and enthusiasm to pursue our common goals!
Managing Director of oriGIn