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Opinion What do crystal and bread rolls have in common?
We already recognise geographical reputation for foodstuffs but we should do likewise for local crafts – it has cultural and economic benefits.

WHAT DO PRODUCTS like Connemara Marble and Waterford Glass have in common with foodstuffs such as Connemara Hill Lamb or Waterford Blaa?

They are both Geographical Indications, or names linking a specific product with a specific origin.

What makes them different? Geographical Indications for foodstuffs are protected under a special European law, while geographical indications for non foodstuffs or industrial products are only protected under local Irish law.

The question of whether we should retain this distinction is not simply a legal one – it’s also about hard economics.

Cold, hard cash 

Research shows that protection under EU rules is worth hard cash. A 2012 study for the European Commission examined the value of registration as a European GI in the foodstuffs sector. It found that GI-registered products had, on average, a premium rate of 2.23.

Put another way, EU-registered GIs sold at (on average) 2.23 times the price of comparable unregistered products.

Given that there are economic benefits in the food sector, should we not extend those benefits to the industrial sector? The argument advanced against this is that industrial production is different from food production, because industrial production can be moved anywhere whereas the qualities of foodstuffs – such as whiskey or cheese – are linked to the terrain and climate of the place of origin, and cannot be moved.

But this argument does not hold up.

People and tradition

For one thing, even in the food sector geographical indication is determined not so much by climate or terrain, but but the link to people and the traditional means by which those people make a product. Thus, the protection of Waterford Blaa is as much about protecting the traditional way of making Blaa in Waterford as about the terrain or climate in Waterford.

What is being protected is the reputation of a product traditionally made in Waterford.

Let’s take another example: Connemara marble is no less linked to the terrain than is Connemara Hill Lamb. The marble that is mined in Connemara is inherently linked to Connemara, not to any other geographical origin. It is essentially a terrain-based geographical indication.

The idea of geographical indications as applied to foodstuffs includes links between the product and the place of origin based on both reputation and terroir. The same can apply in relation to industrial products – although the likelihood is that, for many industrial products, the link will be primarily based on reputation. But that is also the case for foodstuffs, as illustrated by the Waterford Blaa example. And since both international and EU law recognise the importance of reputation, there seems no reason not to extend GI protection to industrial products.

The reputation of the community 

Which brings us to the social aspect of geographical indications. The reputation linking a product to a place is often the result of the efforts of many people over long periods of time. In that sense, the reputation is a collective reputation belonging to the community in question – the community of workers, of investors, of consumers. GI laws allow that reputation to be captured and protected. GIs are not like trade marks owned by one individual or company – in fact, they are not owned at all in that sense. Rather, they are a legal recognition of a reputation that is worth protecting. Anyone who respects the traditions can use the name. It’s about community, not exclusivity.

Now, the question of whether to extend GI protection from foodstuffs to industrial products is on Brussels’ agenda. A study financed by the European Commission recommended extending GI protection, and now the Commission has opened a Public Consultation and invited interested parties to respond by Tuesday 28 October. The public is being invited to answer a series of questions on the issue.

If you want to ensure that Europe protects our manufacturing traditions and culture in exactly the same way it protects our agriculture and foodstuffs, take a moment to have your say here.

Based in Brussels, Irish lawyer Bernard O’Connor is a partner in the firm of NCTM O’Connor and is Visiting Professor at Bocconi University and the University of Milan. His areas of expertise include industrial and intellectual property law.

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