Brazil Fights Lingo-Piracy, the Privatization of Its Words

We’ve heard about biopiracy, the practice of multinational corporations claiming patent rights in the genetic resources of plants and crops in a developing country. Now we are seeing the rise of what might be called lingo-piracy. Brazil is fed up with foreign companies claiming trademarks in common Brazilian words for native fruit, foods and plants. The trademarks give the foreign companies exclusive marketing rights in the words, which in turn inhibits Brazilians from selling their own native foods and fruit in foreign markets.

Last week, the Brazilian government announced that it’s fed up with this practice. It published a list of more than 5,000 generic terms from the Portuguese language that are related to Brazilian plant biological diversity, and sent the list to the World Intellectual Property Organization and World Trade Organization. In essence, it’s putting the world on notice that it won’t stand for its native words being poached. (See Intellectual Property Watch, August 8).

Here are two examples. A Japanese company has trademarked the word “acai,” a generic name in Brazil for a small, dark blue/black fruit from the Amazon. Iren G. Gerhardsen of IP Watch explains that “a number of second or third generation descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil have returned to Japan, bringing with them the generic names from Brazilian Portuguese and trademarking them.” There are also several instances in which foreign companies claimed trademarks in the word “rapadura,” which refers to an unrefined brown sugar eaten in northeastern Brazil.

In the end, Brazil’s list of 5,000 words from its cultural commons may not have much impact. Every nation is free to follow its own laws in the granting of trademarks. And in fact, the legal criteria for judging which words are generic vary from country to country. So the list may be more symbolic and hortatory than legally binding.

Lingo-piracy is not an entirely new problem, even in the United States. Ralph Lauren has a trademark in the word “polo” (over the objections of the U.S. Polo Association), and Congress has given the U.S. Olympic Committee exclusive control over the word “Olympics.” This has resulted in a ban on the phrase “Gay Olympics” but permission for the “Special Olympics.” No word yet on whether the Olympic Diners in countless cities will have to change their names, although a high-priced lawyer could argue that diners using the word is “diluting” the brand image of the Olympic Games just as the Village Voice once went after newspapers like the Cape Cod Voice and Bloomington Voice.

Ah, but that’s history. Bravo to Brazil for its vigor in confronting the corporate enclosures of its linguistic commons.