from the too-late dept

One of the more annoying trends in intellectual property is when regional consortiums try to lock up terms or language around a specific style of product with arguments that only that region can produce a certain thing. If you’re familiar with this concept, the first thing to leap to your mind will likely be one French wine group’s control over the term “champagne” in certain regions. Another example would be a consortium of Belgian chocolate makers trying to assert that nobody can advertise “Belgian-style chocolate” unless it comes from one of them. It’s all very silly, as it attempts to take a term that everyone recognizes as describing the style of a product and transform it into locked up language to be controlled by some specific originators. Like I said, silly, though, far too often, these consortiums get their way.

Not the case in the United States for a group of French and Swiss cheese-makers in the area surrounding Gruyeres, who attempted to get the term “gruyere” trademarked. After the the U.S. Dairy Export Council opposed the mark, and the USPTO somehow got this right for once and rejected the application over the term being generic, the Interprofession Du Gruyere and Syndicat Interprofessionel du Gruyere took the matter to the Eastern District of Virginia courts only to find the judge there has ruled against it too.

After a lengthy legal fight, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Gruyere cheese does not have to come from the area in or around Gruyeres, Switzerland in order to be labeled Gruyere, writing in his decision that Americans don’t associate that cheese with that town. The Interprofession du Gruyère and Syndicat Interprofessionel du Gruyère — the associations that represent Swiss and French Gruyere, respectively — filed the lawsuit after they were denied trademark protection for the word “Gruyere” last year.

“It is clear from the record that the term GRUYERE may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France,” the judge wrote, according to the AP. “However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled GRUYERE produced outside the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic.”

All of this legal actions follows months of the two foreign groups sending all kinds of threat letters to a variety of American dairy companies that produce gruyere cheese. Non-helpfully, those threat letters also often came with suggestions about what these companies should call their cheeses instead: alpine cheese and mountain cheese are both among the dumbest of the suggestions.

Now, while both parties have said they plan to appeal this ruling, it would be quite nice if that only resulted in a continued litigation smackdown. There is no un-ringing this bell; Americans have been consuming gruyere cheeses forever at this point and I’d wager the vast majority of them, like me until writing this post, weren’t even aware that a city called Gruyeres in Switzerland existed.

What’s next? Belgium style ales can’t be called that unless they come from that country? IPAs that can only originate in, ironically, England? Or maybe we can just stop being so absurd about all of this instead.

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Filed Under: cheese, france, geographic indicators, gruyere, trademark, us

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