WHAT do Moet & Chandon champagne, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, and "Thai Khao Hom Mali Thung Kula Rong-Hai" jasmine rice have in common?
They all have geographical indications (GIs) which indicate a place of origin that confers upon them a unique quality.
GIs assure the quality, reputation or other unique traits of a product from a specific location. Both natural and human factors come into play, including the climate and soil of a specific region, traditional production processes and the cultural milieu.
A Bill was tabled in Parliament recently to amend the GIs Act, a law passed in 1998 because of Singapore's obligations to protect GIs under the treaty called Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), 1994. Like copyrights or patents, GIs are intellectual property.
Attributing quality to agricultural products with the name of the place of production is an old practice used worldwide. Thus there is basmati rice from the Himalayan foothills, Mandeling coffee from Sumatra and Sarawak pepper of Malaysia.
So human-food-place indications of quality are long established. What is new is recognising them as intellectual property to be protected to prevent their misuse. Imitations using a genuine GI or substitutes using a name that sounds like one mislead consumers into paying premium prices for inauthentic quality.
GI registries are to be found mainly in the European Union (EU), which has more than 700 GI food products. Though Trips encouraged member-states to negotiate a global or multilateral GI registry, most countries led by the United States have resisted it since 1997.
The US wants anyone claiming infringement to prove that consumers are confused by the alleged infringer's use of a GI or near-enough name.
The EU registry system confers near-absolute protection and the owner of a registered GI does not have to prove that consumers are likely to be confused by the faux product. Also, once registered, a GI cannot become a generic word.
Thus basmati rice, if registered here as a GI, cannot be used as a generic name for a type of long grain rice if it is not grown in the Himalaya foothills.