Protected GIs lost in translation, says WTO

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Related tags: Czech republic

Leaked details of a potentially landmark WTO ruling throw into
question the EU's right to protect regional product names if they
are translated from another language, writes Kim Hunter

The main case pivots around the long-running dispute over the use of the name Budweiser. The Czech Republic, a newly incorporated EU member, is seeking geographic indication (GI) status for the name of its ancient and prized lager.

Most of the world knows the name Budweiser from the giant American brand owned by Anheuser-Busch, which has sold its product under that name since 1876. The US company sold 9.9 million hectoliters of lager last year, compared to the Czech group's 1.2 million.

The United States went to the WTO in April 2003 complaining that Anheuser-Busch had lost sales because some European countries had allowed the Czech beer to be sold under the Budweiser name. The Czechs argued that they were entitled to the name, and that their beer should be protected as a GI product because it is the only one still brewed in Budweis.

The Czech Budweiser has been brewed in Budweis since the 13th century and the company was once the royal brewery for the Holy Roman Empire. The city was German speaking until the 19th century, and bilingual for much of the last. The now more common, Czech, name for the city is Ceske Budejovice.

Although exact details of the content of the WTO report are unclear, observers in Europe claim that it has lent support to their case by stating that GI products would take preference over simple trademarks. But US sources, cited in reports by Bloomberg​ and the Wall Street Journal​, suggested that the WTO had qualified this by suggesting that the EU should not be allowed to protect a GI with a place name that has been translated.

Since Budweis is the German name for Ceske Budejovice, the Czech brewer would not be able to claim protection for its Budweiser brand should this ruling become official.

If this is indeed what the WTO has decided, it might infringe on the legal status of many other disputed GIs. It could, for example, entitle producers of fortified wine around the world to call their products Port or Sherry, which are translations of the local names Oporto and Jerez. Producers of 'British sherry' were forced to rebrand as 'fortified wine makers' following Spain's accession to the EU in the 1980s.

The official publication of the WTO report is expected early next year. Appeals are almost certain to be launched whatever the trade body decides.

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