The European Commission has published a roadmap with a view to possibly launching a proposed regulation on the protection of geographical indications for non‑agricultural products. It is pointed out in this new initiative that there is currently no harmonised mechanism for the protection of geographical indications of other than foodstuffs or agricultural products. However, such (industrial or handicraft) products are often aligned with an important element of local identity in the Member States. A uniform system could help EU producers stay competitive and cooperate in niche markets, provide consumers with better visibility, and boost regional economies.
GIs identify a product as originating in a specific place (national, regional or local) where a particular quality, reputation or other characteristics are essentially attributable to that product’s geographical origin. The EU already has GIs protecting wines, spirits, cheeses and other agricultural products or foodstuffs. However, there is currently no EU‑wide mechanism to protect the qualities attributed to specific local skills and traditions relating to non‑agricultural products, such as ceramics, glassware, clothing, lace, jewellery, furniture and knives.
The current regulatory framework for the protection of GIs for non‑agricultural products in the EU is currently fragmented. The European Commission notes that more than half of EU Member States have national rules providing for the specific protection of indications of geographical origin of non‑food products, but these differ in many respects. Non‑agricultural producers who wish to protect an indication of geographical origin throughout the EU have to seek separate protection in each Member State in which this option is available.
Within the EU internal market, there is also no cross‑border system of mutual recognition of national protection systems. At EU level, producers can certify the origin of their products using a collective or individual trademark. However, using a trademark does not enable producers of industrial and handicraft products to certify the link between the quality of the product and its geographical origin according to pre‑determined EU‑level rules.
The European Commission has therefore been called upon to create a regulatory framework for the protection of geographically‑linked industrial and handicraft products. For example, in autumn 2015, the European Parliament endorsed an own‑initiative report on the possible extension of EU GI protection to non‑agricultural products and called on the Commission to make a legislative proposal to that effect. On 10 November 2020, the Council adopted conclusions on IP policy and indicated that it was ready to consider the introduction of a unique system for the protection of non‑agricultural products, “on the basis of a thorough impact assessment of its potential costs and benefits”.
Such a system is also felt necessary for the protection of consumers. In the absence of appropriate EU‑wide GI rules for non‑agricultural products, it has been argued that consumers may find it more difficult to distinguish between authentic and non‑authentic goods. The gap in the current system calls for a more coordinated approach to ensure the appropriate use of GIs so as to guarantee authenticity, differentiate products on the market and boost the value of sales and exports.
For producers, the specific objectives of an EU‑wide framework would be to, among others, improve their competitiveness by facilitating a fair return on their investment in high‑quality and innovative products; and curb unfair competition from operators “free‑riding” on the reputation of such products. For consumers, the specific objective would be to provide reliable information on authentic geographically linked non‑agricultural products.
The European Commission is therefore considering various policy options on this topic, moving forward, from the least interventionist (“do nothing”), to merely voluntary measures (e.g., an EU Recommendation which is non‑binding for the protection of GIs), to, for example, creating a single protection system for non‑agricultural products based on a new and unique IP right at EU level.
It is also believed to be noteworthy that many consumers attach importance to the impact of their consumption on the environment. This new initiative may, therefore, give producers incentives to maintain high‑quality and environmentally friendly geographically‑linked products using more advanced techniques e.g., to elaborate marble or in the case of textiles.
The Commission points out that an impact assessment will be prepared in Q3 of 2021, on the basis of available and forthcoming studies on specific aspects of non‑agricultural GI protection. In the context of this impact assessment, an additional consultation of stakeholders will be carried out, focusing on concrete options for the future.