02.12.15

Leahy Joins Bicameral Effort To Protect Vermont Dairy Farmers And Cheese Producers On International Stage

WASHINGTON (THURSDAY, Feb. 12, 2015) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) joined a bipartisan, bicameral effort on Thursday raising concerns about changes to an international intellectual property treaty that will affect the dairy industry in Vermont and across the country. 

Leahy’s efforts come as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) prepares to consider changes to the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin, in May. The proposed changes to this international treaty would expand its scope to fast-track the protection of “geographical indications” (GIs), which are used to designate products from a particular region, such as Champagne.  Such an expansion would pave the way for overly broad restrictions on the use of common terms like “muenster,” “gouda,” and “feta,” which are regularly used by U.S. cheese producers, particularly within Vermont’s dairy industry.  Despite the global impact of these expansive changes, negotiations will take place in a closed session, with the overwhelming majority of WIPO members, including the United States, barred from fully participating. 

Leahy, who is the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, joined a letter to the Director General of WIPO expressing concerns about the closed proceedings and about the application of overly broad designations that could tie the hands of Vermont’s farmers and cheese producers. The letter was sent on Thursday.

“These proposed changes would have a significant impact on companies across the globe whose business depends on the use of common or generic names or on the integrity of established trademarks,” the letter states.  “Consistent with longstanding WIPO practice, and in the interests of transparency and basic procedural fairness, these changes must be carefully vetted by all Members of WIPO before proceeding further.”

The letter warns that “companies in the United States and elsewhere could see their sales opportunities and intellectual property rights eroded in various markets around the world.  This is already occurring in many countries where U.S. companies face geographical indications registrations that threaten to internationally block their use of common food names or negatively impact existing protections for their established trademarks.”

The letter was signed by the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Finance Committee, House Judiciary Committee, and House Ways and Means Committee.  These efforts were supported by 12 Vermont cheese producers, including Cabot and Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, which have raised concerns about current and potential GI designations.

Bob Wellington, the senior vice president of Agri-Mark, Inc./Cabot, said: “The use of traditional names for cheese varieties is crucial to both consumers and cheese manufacturers in all countries.  It provides the information and understanding for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions where ever such products are sold.”

And Tom Bivens, Executive Director, Vermont Cheese Council, said: “The health and growth of the artisan and farmstead cheese industry in Vermont would be significantly and negatively impacted by the proposed restrictions on the use of general terms that are commonly used to describe cheese varieties.”

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About Agri-Mark, Inc.

Agri-Mark’s rich tradition as a cooperative dates back to 1916 with the formation of its predecessor, the New England Milk Producers Association. The cooperative flourished, and in 1980 it became Agri-Mark. A dozen years later, Agri-Mark merged with Cabot Creamery Cooperative. Agri-Mark manages four plants in three states, and employs over 1,000 people.

 

About The Vermont Cheese Council

The Vermont Cheese Council represents cheesemakers throughout Vermont who are dedicated to the production and marketing of premier Vermont cheeses. The Council's mission includes hosting educational events for the public and food professionals about the art and science of artisan and farmstead cheeses made in Vermont.

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The text of the letter is below and a signed copy can be found here.

Director General Francis Gurry

World Intellectual Property Organization

34, chemin des Colombettes

CH-1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland

Director General Gurry:

We write to express serious concerns about the process by which the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is seeking to make changes to the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin. These proposed changes would have a significant impact on companies across the globe whose business depends on the use of common or generic names or on the integrity of established trademarks.   Consistent with longstanding WIPO practice, and in the interests of transparency and basic procedural fairness, these changes must be carefully vetted by all Members of WIPO before proceeding further. 

As you are aware, this WIPO-administered treaty allows parties to the agreement to simultaneously register Appellations of Origin with all parties to the Lisbon Agreement. The revisions to this treaty would markedly expand its scope, allowing for the registration of geographical indications.

Unfortunately, the views of all WIPO Members are not being adequately taken into account in the Lisbon Agreement revision process, even though the proposed changes will have substantial consequences for many of the countries that have been excluded, including the United States. The revisions are scheduled to be taken up for consideration and approval at this year’s Diplomatic Conference, but contrary to the common WIPO protocol of the last quarter century, non-parties to the Lisbon Agreement are currently not permitted to fully participate. 

All WIPO Members must be permitted to fully participate in the Diplomatic Conference.  The full participation of all WIPO Members in the creation and substantial revision of treaties is essential to WIPO’s ability to foster global consensus in an inclusive manner on important issues of concern to the international community.

This is particularly true regarding the proposed changes to the Lisbon Agreement because the expansion, as currently envisioned, could have very negative consequences for the global trading environment, with sweeping effects beyond the Lisbon parties, including on businesses and the workers they employ.  In particular, we are concerned that the expanded agreement will not provide adequate protections for users of common or generic names or for prior trademark holders around the world. Without these safeguards, companies in the United States and elsewhere could see their sales opportunities and intellectual property rights eroded in various markets around the world. This is already occurring in many countries where U.S. companies face geographical indications registrations that threaten to internationally block their use of common food names or negatively impact existing protections for their established trademarks.  

WIPO’s legitimacy as a global forum for the protection of intellectual property throughout the world could be called into question by departing from standard practice and allowing a limited group of WIPO Members to substantially amend the Lisbon Agreement in a way that harms market access and the intellectual property rights of stakeholders from other WIPO Members, including the United States.  Such a step would be contrary to longstanding WIPO practice, which is to encourage broad participation because of the far-reaching effect of its decisions.  Therefore, we strongly urge you to do everything possible to ensure all WIPO Members have an equal voice in determining any revisions to the Lisbon Agreement. 

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Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693