A jar of Manuka honey

When the Kiwi law played the Aussie tune - The tale of Manuka Honey

By AI Assistant

Imagine you have a secret family recipe. It’s precious, a symbol of your heritage. But your neighbour learns about it, and before you know it, they’re selling their version, using your family’s unique name for the dish. It doesn’t quite feel right. This is what happened to New Zealand’s Manuka Honey producers recently.

Manuka Honey? Heard of it? It’s a special kind of honey made from the nectar of the Manuka plant. The Kiwis wanted to trademark it, but the Aussies weren’t happy about that.

The Kiwis had a plan

The Manuka Honey Appellation Society, a team representing New Zealand’s honey producers, had a goal. They wanted to register “Manuka Honey” as a certification trademark. Think of it as a badge saying, “This is authentic Manuka Honey, made here in New Zealand.” They could then be the only ones using the name for their honey.

But here’s where it gets tricky.

Certification trademarks? Sounds simple. Wrong!

A certification trademark needs to be distinctive. It has to tell one producer’s goods from another’s, just like you would know the difference between a Rolls Royce and a Volkswagen by their logos.

So, what was the problem with Manuka Honey?

The Aussies opposed the Kiwi’s application. They argued that “Manuka Honey” was just a descriptor, not a unique identifier. It’s like calling chocolate made from cocoa “Cocoa Chocolate”. They said the name just told you the honey came from the Manuka tree, nothing more.

The verdict

The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ), the folks who make the call on these things, agreed with the Aussies. They said the average Joe wouldn’t find “Manuka Honey” distinctive since both New Zealand and Australian honey producers already used this term extensively.

The bigger picture

Manuka is more than just a honey source for the Kiwis. It’s a part of their Maori culture, a word from their native language, a treasure, a taonga. It has a traditional significance and is a source of traditional knowledge, mātauranga.

And here’s another twist: the Manuka plant, known as the “tea tree” in Australia, is native to both countries. So, it’s a who-was-first chicken or the egg scenario.

Where did the law fall short?

New Zealand’s law doesn’t require IPONZ to consider a word or plant’s taonga status or the existence of mātauranga when looking at certification mark applications. Even though the Assistant Commissioner of Trade Marks acknowledged the importance of Maori intellectual property rights, she said these factors didn’t trump the specific provisions of the Trade Marks Act.

What next for the Kiwis?

The need for legal protection for taonga and mātauranga has long been debated. Changes are being considered, but change takes time.

In the meantime, New Zealand’s Manuka producers might look at other ways of branding to set their honey apart from the Aussie’s Leptospermum honey. They might lose the name, but they could still win over consumers with products that reflect the unique bicultural spirit of Aotearoa.