Vietnam should sue Chinese company over coffee patent

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Dak Lak Province should sue a Chinese company for violating the trademark of Buon Ma Thuot coffee, Nguyen Van An, executive board member at the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, told Thanh Nien Weekly in an interview.

A Chinese firm has recently patented a Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand as an exclusive trademark in China for ten years. What are your opinions about the issue?

Nguyen Van An: Vietnam mainly exports raw materials. We have yet to boost our shipments of processed agricultural products. A number of Vietnamese farm products have become more well-known on the world market recently, so some foreign firms have registered sole patent rights for Vietnamese product brand names to take advantage of this.

The registration of the brand name of a product could help prevent the same commodities from being sold to markets where the brand name has been registered.

Local media has recently mentioned two cases in which a Chinese company and a French company have registered for the sole patent right to the Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand, and Dak Lak coffee brand respectively. It is alarming to us that we are not patenting geographical indications.

The Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Association has patented the geographic indications for Buon Ma Thuot coffee in Vietnam, but has not yet done so in the world or the region. The brand name registration of the Chinese company is a warning to Vietnamese companies to register geographic indications for their products.

How will this case affect Vietnam's coffee exports?

It now has not yet affected our exports. However, it will impact the coffee shipments of Vietnamese firms in the long term.

Buon Ma Thuot coffee is considered a product made in a special locality. Frankly speaking, Buon Ma Thuot is a major coffee growing area, but the quality of the coffee is not very high, mainly to serve the instant coffee industry only. The coffee is not used much in the production of high-level drinks.

However, the foreign firm's registration for the Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand could seriously affect other brands. It will be very dangerous if something similar happens to some other famous brands such as Phu Quoc pepper, or Phu Quoc fish sauce.

We should consider the long-term impact of losing brand names. The patent of the Chinese firm for Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand is wrong, and we can sue it for the violation. Buon Ma Thuot is a geographic indication belonging to Vietnam. Geographical indications are place names used to identify the origin, quality, reputation or other characteristics of products.

What has the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association done to deal with the case?

The Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association thinks that the patent of the Chinese firm is wrong, and needs to be eliminated. This is stealing. Buon Ma Thuot is Vietnam's geographic indication, and the Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand name is owned by Dak Lak Province, and managed by the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Association.

The Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Association should conduct legal procedures and hire lawyers to deal with the case. We could sue the Chinese firm over the patent.

What is the lesson we should learn from this case?

Vietnamese firms often only consider short-term plans for their business and brand name. We should consider long-term potential, and patent our brand names in potential markets such as China, Japan and the US.

CONSUMER CONFUSION

Tran Huu Nam, deputy head of the Intellectual Property Department at the Ministry of Science and Technology, said the Chinese company patenting the Buon Ma Thuot coffee brand could make international consumers confused about the real origin and characteristics of Vietnam's own Buon Ma Thuot coffee products.

Dak Lak Province should prepare a case against the Chinese company, he said, because it could win. He also pledged his department's support of any lawsuit by way of helping out with administrative procedures and establishing the legal foundations on which to sue.

This is not the first time Vietnamese product brand names have been patented by foreign firms. The same thing happened to Trung Nguyen coffee and Ben Tre coconut candy. 

With over 100,000 hectares of coffee trees and an annual output of 300,000 tons of coffee each year, Buon Ma Thuot is one of Vietnam's most important coffee cultivation areas. The country has a total coffee output of around one million tons each year. Vietnamese coffee has been exported to 60 countries and regions.

Vietnam, the world's second biggest coffee exporter, shipped 958,000 tons of coffee, worth US$2.1 billion, in the first eight months of this year, up 71.4 percent in terms of value compared to the same period last year, according to the General Statistics Office.

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