Intellectual property - Why GIs need protection

The protection of geographical indications (GIs) has emerged as one of the most vital intellectual property right issues under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime. The GIs are signs used on goods that have a specific origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are specific to the place of origin. Most commonly, it consists of the name of the place of the origin of the goods. Agricultural products have qualities that derive from their place of production and are influenced by specific local factors such as climate and soil. Whether a sign functions as a geographical indication is a matter of national law and consumer perception.

Geographical indications may be used for a wide variety of agricultural products. An effective protection for GIs is of considerable importance to Nepal, which is endowed with natural and agricultural products. But there is no separate legislation on GIs in Nepal. However, the consumer protection law and the recently introduced competition law could be utilised for the purpose of unfair use of GIs in Nepal. These provisions are not adequate to provide effective protection for the precious GIs of our country.

Geographical indications can be used as marketing tools in the local products that have a specific quality and that is exclusive to or essentially due to the geographical environment in which the products are produced. This particular type of indicator identifies goods as originating in a specific region, which is essential for a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the goods. Geographical indications are widely used for the promotion of agricultural products and it typically depends on the area of their production. Specific natural and climatic factors may be the reason for individual product properties, which, in turn, may be recognised in the market place. The use of geographical indications is not limited to agricultural products. They may also highlight specific qualities of a product, which are due to human factors that can be found in the place of origin of the products, such as specific manufacturing skills and traditions. That place of origin may be a village or town, a region or a country. An example for the latter is “Switzerland” or “Swiss,” which is perceived as a geographical indication in many countries for products that are made in Switzerland and, in particular, for watches.

Geographical indications are understood by consumers to denote the origin and the quality of products. Many of them have acquired valuable reputations, which if not adequately protected, may be misrepresented by dishonest commercial operators. False use of geographical indications by unauthorised parties is detrimental to consumers and legitimate producers. The farmer are deceived and led into believing that they are buying a genuine product with specific qualities and characteristics, while they in fact get a worthless imitation. The latter suffer damage because valuable business is taken away from them and the established reputation for their products is damaged.

A number of treaties administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) provide for the protection of GIs, most notably the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883, and the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin and their International Registration. Nepal has been a member of the Paris Convention since 2001. In addition, Articles 22 to 24 of the TRIPS deal with the international protection of GIs within the framework of the WTO. All products are covered by Article 22 of TRIPS, which defines a standard level of protection. It states geographical indications have to be protected in order to avoid misleading the public and to prevent unfair competition.

In the Nepali context, the success of all of the local products can be attributed to the existence of an active marketing plan that coordinates the promotion of specific regions. To attract consumers globally, a brand-trademark or geographic indication has to be developed and advertised.

A recognisable image and reputation has to be created for the local product of a country. An appropriate exploitation and promotion of a developing country’s natural and agricultural resources can serve as a determining factor of economic development and foreign direct investment. In this regard, a growing number of countries are recognising that GIs, like trademark, are valuable as marking tools in the global economy. Geographical indications need adequate protection from unauthorised use by third parties, so that consumers are not deceived and the reputation for quality of a product is protected. Therefore, separate GIs act is crucial in Nepal for promotion and protection of Nepal’s geographical indications. To protect our GIs in numerous countries, Nepal should immediately sign the Lisbon Agreement too.

Subedi is an advocate at the Supreme Court