Milking Māori: Fonterras attempt to trademark te reo slammed

An application to trademark 12 te reo Māori words – including awa and kōwhai – for use on Fonterra cheese products has been slammed by National Māori Authority chairman Matthew Tukaki.

“Fonterra need to stick to milking cows instead of milking Māori,” Tukaki told the Herald this morning.

New Zealand Milk Brands made the trademark applications on July 13. They cover 11 cheese products and the brand name Kāpiti (previously registered without a macron). If granted, they would give Fonterra exclusive rights to their use on milk and milk products, cheeses, edible oils and fats.

But Tukaki says “companies and corporates do not own Māori language” and he has today fired letters of protest to Government ministers and the Intellectual Property Office where the applications are currently under examination.

“It makes good business sense to associate themselves with a Māori brand because it gives them some sort of individualistic association, versus competition from other countries … but at the end of the day, they’re going to make a shit tonne of money out of these brand names, out of the use of these words. And who benefits from that exactly?”

He calls the applications “pure arrogance” and says they could lead to a situation where Māori might have to “beg to use them” without fear of a cease and desist letter.

“We’re giving power to a company to hold technical ownership over words and phrases and meanings of Māori that would preclude the very small businesses that we’re endeavouring to economically develop? No. That doesn’t sit well.”

The 12 words sought for trademark are Kāpiti, awa (river), kōwhai (yellow), kānuka (white tea tree), kakato (delicious), pakari (firm), kirīmi (cream), akatea (white rātā), kahurangi (blue), kahikatea (white pine), te tihi (summit) and rarama (gleam). The latter corrects a longstanding error – in 2008, Fonterra received a trademark for the non-existent word “ramara”. Meanwhile, the company continues to hold the registered trademark “kikorangi” (blue), first granted in 2003.

Many of the words sought for trademarking are already on supermarket shelves as Kāpiti cheese products. The recent applications represent the first time Fonterra has sought to legally protect their use in relation to milk products. Some are new additions to old cheese names. Gouda, for example, has been repackaged as Kakato Gouda.

Tiaki Hunia, Fonterra’s director inclusion and Māori strategy, says the words were selected because they described various cheese attributes.

“We’re not owning the word, we’re owning how it’s used in the context of cheese.

“I think we know the importance of ‘awa’ (river) … but this is more about the actual characteristic of the cheese … it looks like flowing waters. There’s no claim that it’s our word, or that it belongs to us.”

Hunia said the company had steered clear of Māori tīpuna and “words that are associated with deeper, more tapu aspects”.

In 2019, Fonterra was criticised for naming its Tuteremoana Cheddar after a Māori ancestor from the Kāpiti area. That cheese had since been renamed “Te Tihi” and was among the new trademark applications. (“Tīhi” with a macron is Māori for cheese).

Hunia said Fonterra had made a long-term commitment to improved cultural practices and “cheese names are probably more the tip of our commitment to te ao Māori”. However, he acknowledged “iwi will take a long time to be convinced that what we’re doing is genuine”.

“I think Māori are proud when we use te reo Māori. The key is making sure it’s done in an authentic and genuine way … we just want to make sure we do things right, because we haven’t in the past and we’re not going to make those mistakes again.”

Hunia said “I’d love to see us doing our part for encouraging New Zealand’s openness to bilingualism”.

“And I don’t want to throw the wine people under the bus, but there’s heaps of them that have got Māori names …”

In New Zealand, a trademark is defined as an intellectual property right that grants the owner the exclusive use of the mark in relation to the relevant goods and services.

Rebecca James, Intellectual Property Office manager trademarks and geographical indicators, says any applications that include Māori words or imagery are referred to the Māori Trade Marks Advisory Committee for advice on whether the trademark is likely to cause offence.

“A trademark cannot be registered in New Zealand if it is likely to offend a significant section of the community, including Māori.”

In addition, all applications to register a trademark are examined “to assess whether or not they are distinctive and non-descriptive in relation to the relevant goods and services”.

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