I’ve been learning about Intellectual Property law recently. It is an interesting topic by its own right and invariably touches on the food industry.
The US Intellectual Property laws are mostly statute driven. Private parties set the trending terms within an industry and the judicial system is called to draw the line only when necessary. The legislatures thus set the tones and forces in the market place accordingly by the swings of many powerful lobbyists. What is protected one day may not be tomorrow.
Leaving the details aside, US IP laws are generally divided into four types: patent, copyright, trade secrets, and trademarks. My interest today is with trademarks.
History: About one hundred years ago, there was a guy who was named Gao Guiyou. Usually, people called his pet name GouZai. He was very stubborn. If he was angry, even a lovely doggy couldn't make him smile. Thus, his neighbours laughted at him Goubuli.
Later on, Gui Guiyou went to learn cooking and became a famous cook. He could make delicious and unique steamed stuffed buns. Even Ci Xi, the ruler of the late Qing Dynasty, loved his steamed stuffed buns. Then he opened a small snack house to cook his steamed stuffed buns. Many people went to his snack house to taste the steamed stuffed buns and his business was flourishing. However, he came across a problem, that is, he couldn't greet and serve each customer.
Finally, a good idea came up in his mind. He put several baskets of chopsticks and bowls on the tables. When a customer came into the house, he just needed to put his money in the bowl and gave the bowl to Gao Guiyou. Then, Gao put steamed stuffed buns in the bowl. After eating, the customer just left his snack house without asking him to pay for the steamed stuffed buns. His neighbours made fun of him and said that Gouzai only knew to sell his steamed stuffed buns and didn't take notice to his customers – that he was the dog that won’t even bother to come and say hellp. Thus, poeple named Gouzai's snack house as Goubuli – dogs won’t even bother.
Quoted from “BBQQ” from travelchinaguide.com
According to Nicholas Economides, a NYU professor at the Stern School of Business, the object of trademark law is to stimulate investment in producing information about goods. The economic role of the trademark is to help consumer identify the unobservable features of the trademarked product.
This makes sense. The Chinese people, over the few thousands of years, developed a social norm to regulate these trademarks in terms of its authenticity, quality, and common trust. Over the years, Chinese people have come to accept the Goubuli mark as a mark of quality and taste because if you want Goubuli buns, you would have to visit Tianjin, the city where the only store is located.
I recently learned that the bun shop, once only available in Tianjin, had expanded its operations not only in China, but also into the US. It's brand is protected by a US registered trademark: "Go Believe." I doubt, though, the creative translation into “Go Believe” will give me the same confidence as the old brand. Aside from asking the tough questions, one is pressing: what has happened to our values and our relationship with food?