Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An multinational coffee company is using its corporate power — more the point, its litigating muscle — to determine who has rights to a geographic place name for the purpose of establishing a trademark. Ethiopia, you say? That whole Yirgacheffe / Harrar / Sidamo rumble with Starbucks? Oh, that’s so last year! Sure, Starbucks opposed Ethiopia’s plan to trademark its regional names, but eventually they realized the writing on the wall read, “Public Relations Nightmare,” especially after their ill-advised YouTube PR campaign backfired. In the end, in the face of pressure from an international coalition of activists, Starbucks did the right thing.
No, the story that’s beginning to get some legs today is between the farmers in the Gayo Mountain region of Sumatra and the Holland Coffee Group, an international coffee importer/exporter with offices in Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco. Where Starbucks merely blockaded Ethiopia’s attempts to acquire its own trade names, Holland Coffee Group has upped the ante to something on the order of full-blown trademark piracy, actually registering marks for Gayo Mountain Coffee in the U.S. and Europe, and then demanding that Gayo Mountain coffee farmers refrain from using that name under threat of legal action. That name — Gayo — which is not only where they live… but is also their tribal name.
I really don’t know a heck of a lot about Holland Coffee Group. They could be really super people. I’m sure they have a lot invested in the success of Gayo Mountain — both in the region itself, and the coffee-growing communities there. Surely they entered into this effort with the intent to protect the investments that they’ve made. I can’t imagine what’s led to such blatant and foolish corporate strong-arm tactics. (Actually, I can… but greed doesn’t require a lot of imagination.) Meanwhile I can only worry that it’s likely to end very badly for everyone involved… and honestly, the Aceh region of Sumatra has seen hardship enough over the years.
Maybe Holland Coffee should read their Aesop.
A man and his wife had the good fortune to possess a goose which laid a golden egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it in order to secure the whole store of precious metal at once. But when they cut it open they found it was just like any other goose. Thus, they neither got rich all at once, as they had hoped, nor enjoyed any longer the daily addition to their wealth.
— Aesop’s Fables
Meanwhile, until there’s some serious progress made on international protection for appellations, it’s very likely that the corporate thuggery will continue.