EU Court leaves Cyprus on the grill as halloumi trademark rift heats up

Halloumi is the most famous traditional cheese in Cyprus. [SHUTTERSTOCK/MOVINGMOVEMENT]

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has dismissed the claim of a Cypriot producers’ organisation who challenged the trademark validation of Bulgarian halloumi-sounding products arguing that they could deceive consumers.

The Bulgarian company M. J. Dairies EOOD filed to the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) an application for registration of the figurative sign ‘BBQloumi’ for its many dairy and cheese flavoured products, as well as for its catering services.

The association of producers that owns the EU collective trademark “halloumi” opposed the registration and brought the EUIPO before the EU Court, contending that BBQloumi would sound like Cyprus’ white gold, the halloumi cheese.

However, according to the Luxembourg-based EU’s highest court, EUIPO was correct in granting the registration as “there is no likelihood of confusion for the relevant public” between the collective mark ‘halloumi’, reserved for the members of a Cypriot association, and the sign ‘BBQloumi’ which serves to designate the entire line of products of the Bulgarian company.

For the Court, it is unlikely that consumers would focus their attention on the element ‘-loumi’ and, even if they notice the similar terminology, they would not establish a link between the two marks.

The ‘BBQloumi’ mark also covers non-dairy meat extracts and catering services of the Bulgarian company, with only a low degree of similarity with Cypriot cheese.

Contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission’s spokesperson said that the EU executive has taken note of the judgement.

“While the Commission has no role in this case as the EUIPO autonomously administers the EU trademark system, we are monitoring the implementation of the recent trademark reform following the action plan on intellectual property published last November,” the spokesperson added.

With this action plan, the Commission aims at better protecting and managing intellectual property to assume leadership in key industrial areas and improve resilience to health and economic crises, while moving towards a greener, more digital economy.

Despite being an important intellectual property tool, the EU trademark offers a lower level of protection to halloumi compared to the quality scheme of protected designation of origin (PDO).

Product names registered as PDO have the strongest links to the place in which they are made.

For instance, in a landmark ruling in 2019, the ECJ stated as unlawful the use of the literary character Don Quixote de La Mancha for the promotion of a certain cheese as it evoked the geographical area with which the manchego cheese, which holds the PDO status, is associated.

In July 2014, Cyprus applied to secure the PDO status for halloumi cheese, but the process has been stalled since then due to its geopolitical implications.

The application, sent to the Commission, also included the term “hellim”, the Turkish-Cypriot name for halloumi, thereby covering the whole island.

The Turkish-Cypriot community is calling for a separate production control mechanism of halloumi to be established, triggering strong reactions by the government.

The case got more complicated still when a UK court recently allowed a British company owned by a Greek-Cypriot commercial license to use the “halloumi” brand in the UK and third-party countries.

In August, the Cypriot national parliament voted down the Canada-EU FTA by 37 votes to 18 because the treaty would not adequately protect the halloumi cheese, putting the approval of the free trade agreement with Canada at risk.

Updated with Commission’s comments.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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