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Yirgacheffe has long been my all-time favorite origin coffee. As a true coffee lover, I appreciate all the many flavors and nuances offered by most specialty coffees, but Yirgacheffe’s earthy, spicy, mellow blend of flavors first awakened my taste buds to those nuances and will always hold a special place in my heart and on my coffee shelf. So when I heard back in 2005 that the Ethiopian government was attempting to trademark the name Yirgacheffe so that they could license its use, it made me perk up my ears.
What would it mean to me if Ethiopia placed a trademark on the use of the name Yirgacheffe? And why a trademark as opposed to a country specific mark of origin similar to those used by Hawaiian Kona growers and the growers of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee? How would it help the coffee farmers if their origin coffees were trademarked and why were coffee companies like Starbucks opposed to the whole idea of reserving Yirgacheffe, Harrar and Sidamo as intellectual property belonging to the farmers and government of Ethiopia?
Those answers aren’t necessarily simple, nor have they been resolved. Five years after the Ethiopian government first applied for trademark consideration of their famous coffee names, it’s still not a settled issue. Those opposed to the idea of allowing a country to trademark the names of its growing regions claim that there are other ways of branding coffee varietals and special origin coffees that will provide coffee farmers with higher prices for their beans. Those in favor make the point that the excellent reputation of Ethiopian coffees may translate to higher end user prices for Yirgacheffe and other Ethiopian coffees, but the coffee farmers aren’t seeing any premium beyond those for other origin coffees.
The Difference between trademark and certification mark for coffee
The “other ways” include a certification mark scheme, similar to those used for Kona coffee and other foods like Stilton cheese and champagne – which can only be called champagne if the grapes for it are grown within the Champagne region of France. Ethiopia’s response to that argument is simple – a certification mark gives them no legal rights in the sale and marketing of their coffee brand. They prefer a trademark scheme, which allows them to license companies to use the Sidamo, Yirgacheffe and Harrar names in coffee labeling and naming.
As of 2008, the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office had managed to acquire trademarks for their regional coffee names in 28 countries, not including those where the trademark application is pending or being challenged. The trademarks include US trademarks for Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar coffees, though two of those – Sidamo and Harrar – are still subject to challenges.
What the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office is trying to do
The aim of the Ethiopian coffee trademark initiative is to increase the visibility of the fine coffees of Ethiopia – the three regional coffees that are the jewels in their crown. The leaders hope that by holding the trademark to the names Yirgacheffe, Harrar and Sidamo, they can work with specialty coffee importers and distributors to market and advertise the coffee more effectively, as well as provide better business intelligence to the small farmers that make their living growing those coffees. By making coffee farmers aware of the prices that their product commands, the promoters say, they put the farmers in a better bargaining position with coffee importers and exporters.