In response to Oxfam’s announcement that global coffee giant Starbucks has opposed a plan by Ethiopia to gain more control over its coffee trade, Starbucks claimed that it has never filed an opposition to the Ethiopian government's trademark applications, nor claimed ownership to any names used to describe the origin of its coffees.
Oxfam responded by saying that Starbucks did prompt the National Coffee Association (NCA), of which it is a leading member, to file an opposition to the applications, which is the reason the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gave for rejecting them. At a meeting held this past July at the Ethiopian Embassy, Embassy staff and advisers met with the NCA president to discuss a letter of protest filed against Ethiopia’s trademark applications. Ethiopian Embassy staff asked the NCA President what had prompted the NCA to file the opposition after more than year of silence on the issue. The NCA President responded that Starbucks had just brought it to the NCA's attention.
It is therefore disingenuous for Starbucks to claim they were not responsible for the application being blocked. Ethiopian Embassy staff and Ron Layton of Light Years IP, a Washington DC-based intellectual property rights organization that is helping to advise the Ethiopian government, have gone on record with this.
Starbucks has also claimed that its investment in social development projects and micro-finance initiatives in coffee growing regions has been recognized for its leadership within the industry.
While Starbucks has taken some positive initial strides in this area, Oxfam thinks the company can do better. As a company that prides itself in such efforts, it is unclear why Starbucks would oppose Ethiopia’s efforts to help its farmers realize a greater portion of the value their coffee commands on the international market.
Intellectual property ownership makes up a huge proportion of the total value of world trade but rich countries and businesses capture most of this. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and one of the poorest countries in the world, is trying to assert its rights and capture more value from its product. It should be helped, not hindered.
Oxfam continues to call on Starbucks to show leadership for other coffee companies by immediately recognizing Ethiopia's rights in this case and signing the licensing agreement that Ethiopia presented to the company in September, recognizing the country’s rightful ownership of its coffee names.