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I am a Professor of Law and the Director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at the American University, Washington College of Law and am a founding member of the Creative Commons board.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Got (good) Coffee?

Trademark. Food, clothing, shelter. How do we obtain these basic necessities? For this post, please excuse a moment of self-indulgence, and let’s set aside the real problem of supplying these to world’s poor so that I can address a middle class issue.

If you go most places in the industrialized world, you will be able to eat, shop, and sleep in an establishment that sports a familiar global brand. If you find the ever-present sameness that this model of retailing brings about deadening, is there any way to limit the quality of sameness to only the features for which consistency matters to consumers while leaving business owners free to offer greater individuality in the retail experience?

Here’s an idea. In the franchise model, a trademark is really acting as a certification mark rather than a source identifier. If small business owners were able to establish effective certification marks, they would be able to reap many of the benefits of being a franchisee while enjoying greater freedom to control their operations and to keep a larger share of their profits.

Take coffee as a test case. Like many coffee drinkers I have an ambiguous relationship with Starbucks. On some occasions, I have never been so grateful to get a big cup of strong coffee in a place where it would otherwise have been unavailable. On other occasions, the success of Starbucks’ strategy to crowd out competitors leaves me frustrated that local javantrepreneurs stand little chance to supply good coffee in an ambience that reflects local culture. But I’ll admit to having been burned in some tourist destinations by local coffee shops that dress themselves up as if they care about what they brew only to find that I’m drinking a $3.00 cup of dishwater.

Assume for the moment that there is a sizeable set of coffee drinkers who would prefer to patronize a local coffee shop over Starbucks if they could be assured that the coffee at the local shop meets certain minimum taste standards. If enough of that group lives in a single locale, a small business owner can compete effectively against Starbucks.

But in destinations where travelers would have to be part of the customer base, a small business is likely to fail when competing against the promise of consistency that the Starbucks logo holds out. However, if a local business could display a reliable certification mark, the business would stand a chance. Then, the traveling coffee drinker could enjoy a locally distinctive ambience along with a cup of good coffee.

So for those who decry the Charbucks hegemony, it’s time to think about what an effective certification mark would have to convey and how such a mark could be made reasonably reliable.


Anonymous greglas said...

Mike -- I'd love to find good local coffee too. It might happen via something like this:

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trademarks and certification marks are both ways of claiming social capital, that is, trust from those who consider the ethics upheld or implied by those marks important.

There is really no similarity between these social marks and what copyright or patents do. The idea of "intellectual property" that has a common rights regime is nonsense. The rights we want to protect when dealing with social marks is simply to know who we are dealing with or what ethics they've been verified to uphold in their production processes.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like many coffee drinkers I have an ambiguous relationship with Starbucks.
I agree with you, Starbucks is great.
By the way, recently I've written an article about coffee franchises.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous happy said...

I love coffee and I like that there are some places where you can enjoy it:)
Here are also some health coffee facts for coffee lovers:)
Still there are not only bad things about coffee, there are a lot of health benefits:)

10:06 AM  

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