Ethiopia & Starbucks' Coffee Dispute
- What's in a name? Plenty, Ethiopia tells Starbucks
By Brenda Ryan
Nov 9, 2006
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 indicatorsnames 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.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW