Tameka Gordon, Business Reporter
The Coffee Industry Board is fighting the piracy of the Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, Jamaica Blue, and Jamaica High Mountain Supreme brands in multiple markets worldwide, but its budget is small and its efforts appear to be falling short.
The commodity board describes infringements, "especially in China", as overwhelming; while senior information officer Dave Gordon says the "high rate of piracy" in the United States market has added to the burden of securing the brands.
The Coffee Board has a budget of J$5 million for legal battles, but there are at least 51 markets to be monitored, and the funds are insufficient for the job.
"It would be difficult for us to say what the volume is like. What happens is the infringements have different forms ...," said CIB Quality Assurance Manager Hervin Willis.
"You might have persons purporting to sell Blue Mountain coffee that is not Blue Mountain coffee; you might have some that label their coffee 'Blue Mountain style' coffee; also you have persons who downright say their coffee is Blue Mountain coffee but they don't buy the coffee from any of the legitimate sources," Willis said.
The Coffee Board, through its subsidiary Coffee Marks Limited, enforces brand protection in 51 territories globally using the services of Atlanta-based law firm Joyce Thrasher Kaiser & Liss LLC.
The Coffee Board has no clear idea of the scope of infringements, saying the reports of brand misuse are ad hoc and that it relies on alert parties to report suspected piracy. Consequently, assessing the full economic cost is difficult, the commodity board said.
"It is very costly to fight these infringements and the board has had to foot the costs for these litigations, further impacting on its resources," said Gordon.
A 2010-11 CIB annual report names Korea, Taiwan, United States, Italy, China, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and some countries in the European Union as among the markets where the JBM brand is used illicitly.
"The issue is an ever-present concern," Gordon said.
"The US can come down here and dig up our companies if we infringe on them, but we don't always have the power to do that with them."
As for China and its daunting size, the commodity board says while it cannot pinpoint the provinces that cheat, there were a number of unapproved products
that made reference to the Jamaican-owned brands in the Chinese market.
Diversifying export market
Jamaica has been trying for two or more years to diversify its geographic markets for Blue Mountain coffee beyond the near stranglehold that Japan had on export supplies pre-financial crisis.
Japan's share fell to 66 per cent this year from its average highs of around 85 per cent.
The US market has shown the biggest increase in emerging and recovering demand for Jamaican coffee, Gordon noted, against the background of improved prices for the commodity internationally. In 2012, for example, the US bought 117 tonnes of coffee.
Former president of the Jamaica Coffee Exporters Association, Richard Sharp, said protecting the brand in "places like China is kind of tricky."
"Some of the best brands in the world are pirated in China. You have to have laws and these countries have not developed (them). Even in Japan it's a discretionary thing that they are working on," Sharp said.
CIB says it has an annual budget of J$5 million dedicated to brand protection, but notes that "financial resources are limited presently".
The funds are cobbled together from shipping charges and a cess applied to roasted coffee and green beans.
Individuals or companies that have been contacted by the CIB for pirating the brand "typically back off" when threatened with legal action and often regularise, Willis said.
It would help the monitoring and brand protection efforts were the sector to sign on to the geographical indications project, launched in 2008, said the quality assurance manager.
"The participation has to come from the farmers and the processors. CIB has lobbied them, we have had training," he said, "but up to this point in time they are yet to sign off on it."
Geographical indications are place names or words associated with location that uniquely identifies indigenous products.