U.S. and China Trademark Offices Collaborate on Joint Program

By Cassie Duong
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - A joint program intended to clarify different practices used in protection of "geographical indications" - marks that identify goods as having a particular quality or reputation linked to the region where they were produced - has been completed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the China Trademark Office (CTMO).

The weeklong program was presented in Beijing and in the coastal city of Xiamen in China's southeastern Fujian province, according to a June 2 news release from USPTO.

The term "geographical indication" comes from the World Trade Organization's 1995 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS.  The TRIPS agreement sets minimum international standards for such marks, which are defined as "indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a WTO member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin."

USPTO does not have a special system for registering geographical indications in the United States.

Long before the TRIPS agreement brought the geographical indication term into use, the United States protected marks that are equivalent to geographical indications through its trademark system.  That system protects the use of names, symbols and other identifying devices that indicate source and distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others.

Under the U.S. system, geographical indications may be registered as trademarks, certification marks or other collective marks that are not specifically designated as geographical indications.  USPTO examines whether a mark functions as a source identifier through the analysis it uses for trademarks.  

Several marks with geographic indications have been used in the United States for decades, according to USPTO.  These include "Florida" oranges, "Idaho" potatoes, "Vidalia" onions, "Napa Valley" wines and "Washington State" apples.

China also protects geographical indications through a CTMO-administered trademark system, according to USPTO.  But China also has a second system, administered through a separate government agency - the Trademark Office of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) - which focuses only on protecting geographical indications.

This difference in regulatory structure has led to confusion over protection of geographical indications and trademarks.

“The USPTO-CTMO geographical indications program represents a significant effort on behalf of each office to understand our respective systems for the protection of trademarks and geographical indications,” said USPTO Director and Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property Jon Dudas.  "Better mutual understanding will lead to certainty and confidence in the protection afforded to trademarks and geographical indications."

Representatives from the Idaho Potato Commission and the Florida Department of Citrus - the owners of U.S. certification marks for "Idaho potatoes" and "Florida citrus" - joined the U.S. delegation at the geographical indications program.

For additional information, see Protecting Intellectual Property Rights and The United States and China.

The full text of the USPTO news release is available on the office's Web site.

An explanation of geographical indication protection in the United States (PDF, 6 pages) and additional information about U.S. trademarks also can be found at the USPTO Web site.

For more information on China’s trademark law, see the Intellectual Property Rights Report webpage of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.