Who Owns the Name of Your Cup of Coffee

250px-coffee_cup.jpgSeems that Starbucks has gotten into a rather contentious spat with the Ethiopian government and that country’s coffee farmers over the Ethiopians’ efforts to trademark the names of certain coffee growing locations. Starbucks uses the names of some of these locations in its product names, and has resisted the effort, initially opposing the applications for trademarks filed with the PTO, and has rebuffed Ethiopian proposals that would require Starbucks to pay locensing fees for the use of the trademarked names. The Ethiopian government says that its efforts are motivated by the desire to see its coffee growers reap greater financial rewards for their efforts in helping to produce what many believe to be some of the finest coffee in the world. Fair enough. Starbucks, presumably, is motivated by the desire to not see its profits erode if it has to pay more for its raw materials. For this, some activists have blasted Starbucks, and have urged the company to be more “socially responsible.” Last I looked, Starbucks was a public corporation that has a legal obligation to its shareholders to maximize profits. Were I a Starbucks shareholder, I likely would not be too thrilled if the company decided to accept reduced profits, diluting the value of my investment in the process, to assuage some sense of social responsibility. I have no problem with the coffee farmers trying to earn more for their crops, and if the applicable law supports their position, more power to them. But let’s lay off of Starbucks for doing what, in my view, business entities in a market economy have the right and obligation to do, which is to maximize profits.

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