Geographical indications: the legal protection of cultural and social heritage
In the satirical comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), the fictious Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the USA after an American company starts distributing a cheaper imitation of the Duchy's sole export product, the Pinot Grand Fenwick wine. While the movie has a happy ending, one might ask whether the conflict could have been prevented if geographical indications for products had been recognised and thoroughly protected by law.
Geographical indications (GIs) are a form of intellectual property protection closely tied to specific geographical locations and the goods produced in them. GIs are used to protect products with a given quality, reputation or other characteristics linked to a particular geographical origin. Well-known examples include Scotch Whisky, Champagne, Cognac, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma or the San Marzano tomato.
The products often rely on local know-how and traditions and are based on the use of local production methods rooted in the region's cultural and social heritage. Their protection by IP rights aims not only at improving consumers' awareness about product authenticity, but also at contributing to the development of geographical locations.
Until today, the legal protection of geographic indications in the EU has been limited to wines, spirits, foodstuffs and other agricultural products. Such rules will be modernised and a new EU Regulation will extend the scope of protection to a large variety of craft and industrial products, such as jewellery, cutlery, glass, porcelain, textiles, lace, natural stones, woodwork or hides and skins. While the project to modernise the existing protection regime is still in the legislative process, the regulation on the new geographical indication protection for craft and industrial products entered into force in late 2023.
The new rules will provide manufacturers of products with particularly strong links to a specific geographical area uniform and EU-wide protection against misuse and imitation. Registrations may be filed with national authorities but will be registered in a single EU-wide database to be created and maintained by the EUIPO.
This additional layer of IP protection will certainly be welcomed by many stakeholders, as the harmonisation of rules will add to legal certainty and enforceability of IP rights, helping to ensure that the passion and effort put into these unique products are appropriately recognised and rewarded.