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Finnish cognac? No, thank you!

November 2011 - Intellectual Property. Legal Developments by Norrbom Vinding Law Firm, member of ius laboris.

More articles by this firm.

Cognac is an area in France – not in Finland. That was the reason why the EU Court did not allow a Finnish spirits manufacturer to call its product ’cognac’.
Most people associate the word cognac with fine spirits from a certain area in France. In other words, Cognac is a geographical area with a good reputation. Therefore, spirits manufacturers are not allowed to trade on the goodwill of the name if the alcohol is not actually from Cognac. This is specified in an EU regulation on the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks from 2008.
In 2003, a Finnish spirits manufacturer successfully registered two trademarks in Finland. The trademarks contained the words ‘cognac’ and the Finnish translation ‘konjakki’. This made an association of French cognac manufacturers see red. They went to the Finnish courts, which referred the matter to the EU Court.
The main issue of the case was whether the EU Regulation on the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks should be taken as also prohibiting trademarks registered before the Regulation entered into force.
Legal certainty is primary consideration
The EU Court said that the general principles of legal certainty normally prevent legislation from having retrospective effect, other than in exceptional circumstances where the legitimate expectations of those concerned must then be ‘duly respected’.
The Court then looked at the relevant provision of the EU Regulation in order to decide whether its wording points to a time-frame which could restrict the rule.
But the Court concluded that, in its current wording, the provision does not set a time-frame which restricts the rule. Nor was there a violation of the principle of legal certainty because the word ‘cognac’ has been a protected geographical designation in other ways under EU law long before the Finnish authorities granted the trademark. Accordingly, the EU regulation was applicable.
It is now for the Finnish court to rule in the main proceedings.
Norrbom Vinding notes:
  • that with regard to the issue of legislation with retrospective effect, the EU Court’s ruling seems a bit on the harsh side, considering the fact that Finland only joined the EC in 1995; and

  • that Denmark was involved in a similar case concerning feta cheese, which meant that Danish dairies are no longer permitted to sell cheese under the name of 'feta'.
The above does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such

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