UPDATE: Poor Starbucks

The company activists love to hate.

Poor Starbucks, getting roasted over the coals by activists again. That's the problem with being so visible and marketing yourself as a paragon of virtue. Which, compared to plenty of corporations, it is. Unlike the rest of the coffee industry prior to Starbucks, the company's been making some genuine efforts to improve the economics of the business for Third World farmers. But whatever it does is never enough. And it's such a ripe target for boycotts and leafletting because activists know Starbucks customers are terrified to face the possibility that their four-dollar latte is actually filled to the brim with exploitation--that (as my great predecessor Skip put it) there's blood in your coffee!! Quite the contrary, they want to feel they're improving the Third World and its quaint dark-skinned farmworkers with every sip.

This time Starbucks is being publicly raked by Oxfam, which just ran full-page ads in the New York Times, as well as the Times and P-I in Seattle, promoting its Day of Action, when you're supposed to go up to your barista and strongly chastise them for the company's refusal to support trademark rights to Ethiopian farmers for certain of their coffees (or better yet, recruit your barista to the cause!). After a fair amount of reading, I still can't figure out how exactly it's Starbucks responsiblity to grant anyone a trademark, or how Starbucks can stand in the way of someone registering a trademark. But in any case, the situation is, naturally, far more complicated than it appears, as stories such as this one, from a British publication called Ethical Corporation, make clear.

UPDATE: Oxfam spokeswoman Helen DaSilva has sent me documents that show the National Coffee Association of the US (a group in which Starbucks plays a key role) protesting Ethiopia's request to trademark its coffee names--specifically, Harar and Sidamo--arguing that these are already used as generic names for coffee. According to this BBC story, Starbucks denies initiating the protest. DaSilva says the association told the US Patent Office that the issue was first brought to its attention by Starbucks.

DaSilva informs me that the Day of Action is intended to convince Starbucks to agree to sign an individual agreement with Ethiopia, whereby the company would acknowledge Ethiopia's ownership of its coffee names without actually paying any royalty. Starbucks has declined to do so, she says, and wants Ethiopia to do what's called "certification" instead. That's more along the lines of what champagne and basmati rice growers have imposed, where no one in particular owns the name, but you can't just call your product by that name without being the genuine article. DaSilva says the Ethiopian government and growers have made up their own minds: "They have done extensive research, and trademark is the path they've chosen to pursue" in order to boost the return they get on their product. Here's a backgrounder from Oxfam on the subject.

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