Plenty on the line in trust koha battle

JONO GALUSZKA
Last updated 12:00 26/11/2011

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Horowhenua Library Trust has every chance in the world of defeating an American corporation in a battle over the trademarking of a Maori word in a potential David v Goliath battle, according to an intellectual property consultant.

The word in question – koha – is the name of a library management system developed by the trust in 1999.

Since then, the program had been free to use by anyone around the world, and was the most popular management system in United States' libraries last year.

However, American company Liblime had their application to trademark "koha" – Maori for donation or gift – in New Zealand accepted by the Ministry of Economic Development earlier this month.

If anyone tried to use the word to label a product after it was fully approved, Liblime could demand they change its name or sue.

The trust's head of libraries, Joann Ransom, said the company's trademarking of "koha" in New Zealand was "bizarre". "They have no business here, they're a company in the States with a heap of defence contracts," she said.

Liblime is a subsidiary of PTFS, another American company which provides management system support to a wide variety of organisations, including aeronautics company Boeing, the International Monetary Fund and a wide variety of United States government departments, including multiple divisions of the country's army.

People now have three months to challenge the ruling before it becomes official, and Mrs Ransom said the trust would lodge a submission.

After putting out an appeal for funding to help fight the trademarking, the trust had received money from all corners of the world and had taken up an offer from law firm Buddle Findlay to represent them on a pro bono basis.

Intellectual property consultant Theodore Doucas said such a scenario was a problem whenever companies made free software, as they rarely wanted to pay more than they had to in the development stage.

"It really is a catch 22 – you either register it to make sure people don't use it, but that costs money and you risk people coming and doing this if you don't," he said. There were provisions under common law to protect people who had used a word as a trademark for a long time, but it would require a legal challenge, Mr Doucas said.

The library trust was likely to win under that law, he said.

There were parallels with the successful enforcing by DB Breweries of the term "radler" earlier this year, when Green Man Organic Brewery had to change the name of their beer, Mr Doucas said.

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If the Society of Beer Advocates, which fought the case on behalf of Green Man, had challenged the ruling, they also were likely to have won, he said.

Such cases were "far more common than people think", and Mr Doucas said people needed to get educated on trademarking.

- Manawatu Standard

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