Ethiopia wants to trademark certain coffee beans in order to protect local coffee growers. Starbucks, opposed, would prefer a certification scheme. Certification — the idea that certain goods are represented to be “authentic” by a certifying authority — has problems of its own. Consider the lobster, or more precisely, consider the problems of a certification scheme implemented to protect the Maine lobster industry. What is a lobster? To the Maine lobster industry, the “lobster” is the “how,” rather than the “what.” From lobsterfrommaine.com:
Your meal arrives and you notice something … something is not quite right.
The lobster seems different.
And it could very well be â€œdifferentâ€œ if itâ€™s not Certified Maine Lobster. Because Maine â€“ the state that has become synonymous with lobster â€“ is the only state that certifies the authentic quality of its homarus americanus.
Caught in the cold, clean waters off our rocky coast, Certified Maine Lobster is harvested today the same way it was hundreds of years ago, by hand. The men and women who haul traps are traditionalists who adhere to strict standards to ensure quality and to make certain lobster stocks remain plentiful for many, many years.
Certified Maine Lobster will be available for generations.
Certification schemes and certification marks, like geographic indicators, can be poor means for resolving underlying social and economic debates (Bob Glushko has a nice analysis of decapod classification), but they’re less blunt than trademarks, which can come with the baggage of un-nuanced “property rights” rhetoric and are, therefore, usually worse.
I find these certification mark issues fascinating, Mike. I’ve got a sense, which I guess you share, that they’re worth thinking about more as a mechanism to do some good in the marketplace (leaving good undefined for the moment).
I’m thinking, for instance, of the efforts of a town near me to be “officially certified” as a Fair Trade marketplace. AFAIK, there’s no such certification, but there’s obviously a demand for it. The risk with all this, I suppose, is the same old risk: private certifiers get bought out, underfunded, or compromised in some way and governmental certifiers get captured by industry.
I’m cautiously optimistic anyway — especially w/r/t metadata. (Though then again, there’s this AUTODESK litigation, which seems troublesome…)
I haven’t looked in any depth into the law review literature concerning them yet, though. If you have, and have any suggestions on interesting treatments, I’d be interested in cites.
The most provocative and engaging recent treatment that I’ve seen is Justin Hughes’s piece on geographic indicators (The Spirited Debate about Geographical Indications), which may not be in print yet. But Justin has been refining the piece (pun intended, given that much of it has to do with alcohol) for some time.