If you want to get an idea of how serious Idaho is about its potatoes, you don’t need to go to a farm. All you need is a busy street. Every standard-issue license plate in Idaho is emblazoned with the words “Famous Potatoes.” So, it’s no surprise that alarm bells went off in Idaho last month. That’s when the state learned a Turkish company was trying to trademark the Idaho name.
“I think it’s clear. They want to create a brand and they want to call it ‘Idaho,'” says Patrick Kole. Kole handles legal affairs for the Idaho Potato Commission.
He says the trademark would mean if Idaho producers sell their potatoes in Turkey, they wouldn’t be allowed to put the word Idaho on them. Kole worries the closely guarded phrase “Idaho potatoes” could become generic.
“You can look at a lot of terms that historically were associated with places. Whether it’s Brussels sprouts or cheddar — because there’s a village in England called Cheddar. Feta. These terms have become generic so that they’re not capable of being protected any longer,” says Kole.
Kole points to the struggle of winemakers in Champagne, France to reclaim the exclusive rights to their name. The Idaho legislature is eager to pick the same fight. State Rep. Ken Andrus called the foreign trademark “alarming.”
“To protect that good ‘Idaho’ label, something needs to be done,” said Andrus.
The Idaho legislature unanimously passed a resolution against the Turkish trademark. But on the House floor, Phylis King, a Democrat from Boise, had a question.
“Why do the people in Turkey think they can use the Idaho label? Why do they want to do that?” she asked.
Why, indeed. Let’s ask someone who knows her Turkish.
“I’m just very puzzled,” says Pelin Bacsi, who teaches Turkish language and literature at Portland State University.
“‘Idaho’ itself doesn’t mean anything in Turkish. And I’ve tried different variations on this. It’s not even remotely Turkish,” says Bacsi.
Basci says, in Turkey, Idaho and its potatoes don’t really have a reputation to steal.
“Ordinary people on the street would not know anything about Idaho,” says Bacsi.
For an answer, I turned to the Turkish agricultural company itself. It’s called Beta Ziraat. After unanswered emails to the company and its attorney, I tried calling. I eventually reached a manager who didn’t want to be identified on air. He says there’s no real attachment to the word “Idaho” — it’s just, Turkish farmers like foreign sounding words.
The company plans to use the “Idaho” label to market its own brand of vegetable seeds. But he says Beta Ziraat has no intention of using the name on potatoes. According to the manager, Turkish patent authorities are already reconsidering the trademark because of the reaction in the U.S.
Bob Cumbow is a trademark and copyright lawyer in Seattle. He says even if Idaho wins this round, the global economy is making it tougher for places with unique names to control their brand.
“Because the whole idea of having enforceable geographical indications is still in discussion and dispute. The standards are going vary from country to country and for that reason it’s going to be hit or miss where you can enforce these,” says Cumbow.
So far, the state’s Potato Commission has trademarked the name “Idaho” and phrases like “Grown in Idaho” in 10 countries. But that leaves out a lot of places — including Turkey.