Protection of Geographical Indications

PUBLISHED: 6th October 2014

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The EU Considers Extending Protection of Geographical Indications to Non-Agricultural Products... That's Places of Origin to You and Me...

The European Union (EU) has a geographical indication (GI) system to protect certain types of agricultural products.  A GI is a sign that identifies a product as originating from a particular location, which gives that product a special quality or reputation or other characteristic.  The location may be a town, a region or a country etc.  The sign often includes the name of a geographical area but a non–geographical name can also constitute a GI. Famous examples of products with protected GIs are: Champagne, Cornish pasty and Waterford blaa. 

Several EU Regulations legislate for GI protection. The laws that apply depend on the type of product involved: wines or spirits or agricultural products and foodstuffs.  A group of producers, or, in exceptional circumstances, a single producer, may file applications with the European Commission (Commission) to register a GI relating to areas inside or outside the EU.

The EU does not have a unitary GI system for traditional non-agricultural products.  The Commission is now considering whether GI protection could or should be extended to non-agricultural products that are rooted in the cultural and historical heritage of particular geographical locations.  In July 2014, the Commission launched a Green Paper, Possible extension of geographical indication protection of the European Union to non-agricultural products. This could possibly lead to GI protection for products originating from, amongst others, Czech garnet, Donegal tweed, Carrickmackross Lace, Aran jumpers and Sheffield steel.

The Green Paper consists of two parts. The first part asks about the current means of protection of GIs provided at national and EU level and the potential benefits to stakeholders by improved GI protection in the EU. The second part includes more technical questions to seek the views of interested parties on possible options for EU-level GI protection for non-agricultural products.

The Green Paper is now open for public consultation and the Commission has invited submissions from targeted groups.  Businesses that already market their products with reference to a geographical origin, or are planning to do so in the future, are likely to be interested.  Competitors of producers using geographic indicators will also be interested.  A new GI system for non-agricultural products will have an impact on the way that producers compete and distinguish themselves on a market, which may have economic benefits.    On the other hand, producers and manufacturers may also have concerns.  Areas of concern may include the level of protection to be granted; protection from over-reach of a GI; how GI rights will be monitored and enforced and how a GI system will affect the reputation of certain goods.

A clear relationship between any potential GI system for non-agricultural products and trade mark law would need to be defined in any new laws, to avoid legal uncertainty and confusion in relation to conflicting names.

The Green Paper is the starting point of the Commission enquiring on the merits and various options for a new GI system. It is not a promise of legislation, but it does suggest that it is a distinct possibility. A non-agricultural product GI system would assist the EU in trade negotiations. Proper legal measures will enable the EU to seek recognition of its GI goods in third countries and reciprocate with equivalent protection for third countries' GI products.  This has already been a topic of discussion in the EU's bilateral trade agreements with other countries.  It is likely that the Commission will broaden the scope of GI protection so businesses that may be affected should monitor any developments in this area.

The deadline for engaging in the public consultation process is 28 October 2014.