Thursday, May 01, 2008

We're All Grown Ups Here, Right?

I like to hang out at the intersection of trade and intellectual property. I find the issues raised there to be particularly interesting.

One long-simmering issue is the question of protecting geographically descriptive designations for products. Champagne, the French argue, must come from Champagne (France); not Italy or California and not even Champaign, Illinois. Similarly, Scotch should come from Scotland and Tequila from the Tequila region of Mexico. Cheddar is a town in England and Gouda is in the Netherlands.

This issue has been the subject of negotiations at the WTO level and is part of U.S. law. It remains confusing to consumers who may buy a product like Hawaiian Punch, with a geographic indication in the name but no real connection to the locale. Arizona Iced Tea is another example. This is because some product names, even though they are geographically misdescriptive, are so well known that they have "secondary meaning" as a source identifier.

It now appears that natives of the Greek Island Lesvos (commonly spelled Lesbos) have taken up the cause of fighting to control the use of the name of their home. This comes from the AP via Assuming this is not a joke, residents of the island have sued a Greek gay and lesbian organization that has no connection to the island to prevent it from using the word "lesbian" in its name. According to the plaintiffs, the use of "lesbian" in this context insults the identity of the island.

As ridiculous as it seems, this raises interesting questions. From a U.S. perspective, it seems that the term has, over the course of the 2600 years since Sappho wrote poems, moved from a specific to a generic meaning. This is what happened to former trademarks like aspirin and cellophane. Becoming generic is a step beyond having secondary meaning, so it would appear that there is no legal issue in the U.S.

But, what about the tougher question of public policy? Lesvos is a real, live place filled with real, live people. Some of those people seem to be offended by the use of "lesbian" to designate gay women. Contrast that to, for example, the Illini band of Native Americans (actually a confederation of six or more tribes). The Illini confederation is now extinct; although part of the Peoria Tribe is now found in Oklahoma. Despite the lack of Illini to complain, Native Americans and others sympathetic to the issue have fought the University of Illinois long and hard over its use of Fighting Illini as a team name and, more specifically, Chief Illiniwek as a dancing mascot at sporting events. As it stands now, the Chief has been retired but the team name continues.

Here's my question, do the living people of Lesvos have a greater claim to control the use of their name than do the representatives of the Illini? Moreover, did the members of the GLBT community stake out a position in the Illiniwek controversy? It seems like living, breathing, suing people--who can pull out a drivers license and show a connection to the region--have a pretty good case in the court of non-hypocritical public opinion. And, since I have long supported the elimination of The Chief at Illini games, I believe I now need to find a new word for lesbian.

What about the movement to rename places with the word "squaw" in them? Maybe the people of Lesvos can offer support on that front.


Anonymous said...

The Lesvians messed up when they respelled the island's name. How many people recognize that lesbians are supposed to be from Lesvos? None. Oh, and people on Lesvos are "Greek" which has its own set of geographic indicator issues to address.

In terms of this "gay woman" issue . . . the Dutch have a lot of dams that they use to hold back water . . . will they be suing these women:

Matt said...

You can't fool me. Using the word "lesbian" five times in a single blog entry will launch your search engine hits into the stratosphere. Great work! Sappho would be proud. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do some more legal research at ""