Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bikini storm in teacup


Bikini storm in teacup

Calcutta, March 6: Tea and sympathy, we've heard about. But tea and titillation is harder to brew. That's exactly what a French lingerie company seems to have tried to do – and got its knickers in a twist.

Delta Lingerie tried to snag the Darjeeling brandname for its range of thongs and other intimate things including strappy, itsy-bitsy bras and bikinis. Bold as brass, it tried to peddle its cheekys and spankies in faraway Taiwan, hoping no one would find anything amiss.

That's when the Tea Board – the guardian of one of India's most famous geographic appellations – cut up rough.

In December last year, the Tea Board won a major trademark battle with Delta over the latter's deliberate negligence in naming its negligees after a geographical indication for world-famous black teas grown in India.

The Supreme Administrative Court in Taiwan threw out an appeal by Delta against a ruling that barred it from naming its panties and slips after the Himalayan district where a certain Dr Campbell is believed to have first experimented with tea seeds in his garden. The first commercial tea gardens in the region came up in 1852.

Darjeeling currently has 87 estates producing about 8.8 million kilograms of tea.

"The same company has a high-end boutique in France selling their stuff under the Darjeeling brandname. The issue, however, has not gone to court yet. Legal proceedings are underway," said a Tea Board source.

Back in 1970, Peter Sellers was raising all the laughs in cinemas across the world while grappling with Goldie Hawn in There's a girl in my soup. But Tea Board chairman MGVK Bhanu had probably never imagined in his wildest dreams that he might one day have to come to grips with a bikini in his teacup.

This isn't the first time that the Tea Board has been slugging it out in courts to protect the brandname against gross misuse.

According to an industry insider, there have been at least 28 cases that have been settled out of court. For instance, fragrance major Bvlgari had wanted to launch a Darjeeling line of men's cologne but later withdrew after it faced opposition.

About six years ago, the Tea Board won a landmark battle against a Frenchman Jean Luc Dusong who had used the much-sought-after name to depict goods and services — books, journals, artworks, communication and consultancy.

In this case, the Board had lost the first round of its battle before the Court of the First Instance in Paris. Later, the Court of Appeals in Paris barred Dusong from using the teapot logo with the word Darjeeling as it amounted to a violation of the geographical indication. Dusong was ordered to pay 2000 Euros in costs to the Tea Board.

A geographical indication is a sign or symbol used to indicate that the goods originate from a specific region. But this is cause for a lot of litigation and heart burn: India is battling cases filed by Britain before the World Trade Organisation for failing to stop its whisky makers from passing off their grog as Scotch.

France has been equally fierce in protecting its geographical indications (GIs) like Champagne or Bordeaux.

In 1997, a Texas company won a patent in the US that gave it the right to call its long-grain rice lines as basmati. This was eventually revoked after India and Pakistan raised a storm of protest.

The Tea Board termed the Taiwan court's verdict as another victory in protecting Darjeeling as a geographical indication (GI). The GI is currently applicable in 27 countries where the Board reserves the right to stop violation of the name given to the world's most prized black tea.

"The determinative issue in any opposition proceeding is whether the registration of the mark applied for, is likely to confuse consumers. In this case, this was a concern as the goods of the parties were different—items of clothing versus tea," the Board said in a statement.

In the particular case, the Supreme Administrative Court of Taiwan upheld the decision of the Taiwan Intellectual Property office and the Intellectual Property Court that the designated goods were different by marks and the relevant consumers may not be confused. But due to the fame that the tea enjoys, the court ruled that the use of the "Darjeeling" brandname on such unrelated goods would dilute and distract the single source indication. It would also diminish the distinctiveness and fame of the teas.

But there's always a twist in the tail.

The Tea Board might have been successful in protecting its Darjeeling brandname in courts abroad. But last year, it ironically lost a case before the Calcutta high court when it tried to stop deluxe hotel ITC Sonar from naming its executive lounge after Darjeeling. The court ruled that ITC Sonar had named the Darjeeling Lounge in 2003 – two years before the GI Act came into existence. It said the Lounge served beverages other than tea and rejected the argument that it in any way diluted the brandname of India's most famous tea.

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