Beating About The Rooibos

Posted on Feb 11, 2013

Beating About The Rooibos

It is a fact of life that attempts have been made in certain other countries to usurp control of the term or mark ROOIBOS, despite the fact that it is a well-known South African description for a particular plant which gives rise to ROOIBOS tea.  The term ROOIBOS is as typically South African as “braaivleis” and “biltong”.  It is really part of our South African heritage.  The South African authorities have nonetheless taken no concrete or effective steps to protect and control the use of this term in South Africa or elsewhere.

Probably the first attempt to hijack ROOIBOS in another country took place in America roughly ten years ago.  After protracted legal battles, South African interests prevailed and registrations of the term for tea products in the United States held by local traders were cleared away.  A similar episode is now taking place in France.  This was reported in the Sunday Times of 3 February 2013.  Application has been made by a French company to register ROOIBOS as a trade mark in respect of beverages in France, and thereby to secure a monopoly in its use, and we are about to have a replay of the American episode.

As pointed out the Sunday Times article, the French attitude to South African objections to the registration of the term ROOIBOS by a local French trader is that such objections must be based on the existence of protection for the term in South Africa, and that without having local South African protection, objectors do not have a leg to stand on. Alas there is currently no such protection in place in South Africa and it is manifest that the South African authorities have been beating about the bush for at least the past ten years and have failed to secure protection for ROOIBOS in its own back yard.  The French attitude is reasonable because the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) clearly specifies that a country cannot claim that a so-called “Geographical Indication” (“GI”) (which ROOIBOS is in the international context) is entitled to international protection unless the term is protected in the home country.  South Africa is a member of this agreement and the Government is well aware of its terms.  The fact that we on occasions pay lip services to the agreement is beside the point.

According to the Sunday Times article, the South African Rooibos Council (SARC) has applied to register ROOIBOS as a Certification Mark under the South African Trade Marks Act, which registration is intended to serve as the basis for international protection granted to GI’s.  The article rightly says that it is complex and time consuming process to obtain a Certification Mark registration and it requires a body of rules to be established regulating the circumstances and conditions subject to which the mark can be used.  Sunday Times describes this process as a “legal quagmire”.

While it is correct that the Trade Marks Act makes provision for the registration of Certification Marks and Collective Marks, it is doubtful whether either of these facilities are appropriate in the case of ROOIBOS.  A Certification Mark is a mark which is capable of distinguishing goods certified by one person in respect of various characteristics (including geographical origin) from other uncertified goods.  A Collective Mark is a mark capable of distinguishing the goods of persons who are members of an association from the goods of persons who are not members thereof. Both of these types of marks must, however, meet the criterion of having distinctiveness, which is laid down for registration of any form of trade mark under the Trade Marks Act.  While the expert authorities concede that, in the case of a Service Mark or a Collective Mark, the criterion of distinctiveness will not be as strictly applied as would be the case in respect of a conventional trade mark, the fact remains that both Certification and Collective Marks are required to be distinctive in order to be registrable.

While the principle of “distinctiveness” under Trade Mark Law is  a complex one and many court cases have been fought on it, the basic departure point is that a mark which is purely descriptive in respect of the goods for which it is used cannot be distinctive.  For instance, the word BREAD cannot be registered as a trade mark in respect of bread.  That term is incapable of identifying and distinguishing one baker’s product from the equivalent products made by others.  Moreover, an ordinary descriptive word in one language cannot be registered in another language which is commonly known is South Africa.

The word “Rooibos” is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (note the English Dictionary!) to mean “an evergreen shrub of the genus Aspalathus with leaves used to make tea;  a shrub or small tree, Combretum apiculatum, with spikes of centred yellow flowers”.  A search for “Rooibos” using the Google search engine, brings up similar information.  In other words, the word “Rooibos” is considered to be part of the English language and it is entirely descriptive of the very product to which the term is applied in trade.  This situation brings to mind a recent case in which the court held that the word “lotto”, although commonly accepted in South Africa to designate the State Lottery, being an ordinary dictionary word in the English language, was not registerable as a trade mark in respect of a  lottery.  While it is true that a descriptive term can acquire distinctiveness through extensive use, it is open to some doubt as to whether a generally accepted generic term can be said to be distinctive, in the trade mark sense, of the goods to which it is applied, namely, in this instance, “rooibos” for tea.

However, despair not! A solution is at hand.  Section 15 of the Merchandise Marks Act, 1941, provides that the Minister of Trade and Industry may, after such investigations deemed appropriate, by notice in the Government Gazette, prohibit either absolutely or conditionally, the use of any mark, word and the like in connection with any trade, trade mark, mark or trade description applied to goods. The provision has been used in the past to protect marks such as the WINGED  SPRINGBOK of South African Airways, SABC/SAUK, various markings used in connection with Dutch cheese, UNICEF, the OLYMPIC SYMBOL, and various FIFA marks used in relation to the World Cup. This provision is eminently suitable for granting appropriate protection to ROOIBOS. Unlike the Trade Marks Act, the Merchandise Marks Act does not require a mark to be distinctive in order to enjoy protection and no formalities, conditions, rules for use, etc must be provided in order to secure the protection. The Minister can simply publish a notice in the Government Gazette, as has been done in numerous instances in the past, prohibiting the use of ROOIBOS in relation to beverages unless they comply with the generic description mentioned previously and are produced in South Africa.  This is a simple and effective means of protection which can be obtained within a matter of a couple of months and with the minimum of fuss and bother.

One cannot believe that the Minister of Trade and Industry would have any objection to granting protection under the Merchandise Marks Act to ROOIBOS, an item of national heritage, when he has been prepared to grant this protection in the instances previously mentioned and, most pertinently, in connection with Dutch cheese.

This solution which is being advanced is not a new one, indeed, it was suggested to the DTI around ten years ago at the time of the American saga.  However, as is unfortunately invariably the case, the DTI is generally not receptive to any suggestions or advice coming from the specialist intellectual property community in South Africa, no matter how sensible and well-intended they may be.

Really, it is time for the Government to stop beating about the ROOIBOS and to take prompt steps to achieve protection for this item of national heritage and to bring about  much needed service delivery in this area, thus paving the way for important international protection for ROOIBOS as a GI.

The DTI commented to the Sunday Times that the so-called “Traditional Knowledge Bill”, once it is passed (oh woeful day!) will provide protection for GI’s.  It is true that the Bill purports to grant such protection, through registration under the Trade Marks Act, but once again the Government is not seeing the wood for the trees because, as has been pointed out ad nauseam by the specialist intellectual property community, any registration under the Trade Marks Act must comply with the basic principles of Trade Mark Law and so the requirement of “distinctiveness” will apply, which brings us back to square one.  This is yet another illustration of just how ill-conceived and inoperative the Traditional Knowledge Bill is.  The Government’s obsession with the Traditional Knowledge Bill and its refusal to heed the criticism and advice of the specialist intellectual property community in regard to it is unfortunately a case of “none so deaf as those who will not hear”.

The solution to the problem of protecting the term ROOIBOS is straightforward and at hand and all that is required is for the government to shake off its prejudice and inertia and do the necessary. It is a travesty that it has not already long since done so.


Prof Owen Dean


  1. Hi Owen

    But I don’t understand. Surely the attempt to register in France can be opposed on the basis the mark is not distinctive for beverages? Or what am I missing? Van die os op die jas: do you read Hans Muhlberg’s Brief?

  2. Hi Elmarie,

    You may well be correct that the applications can be opposed on that basis in France, although I don’t know what the French attitude is to a descriptive word in a foreign language, in this instance in reality an Afrikaans word. That is, however, besides the point. The real issue here is that we should be getting acknowledgement of, and protection for, our Geographical Indications internationally and we are falling down in doing that.

  3. Great article my lecturer briefly touched on this today during my Intellectual Property lecture…is it correct to say that s15 of the Merchandise Marks Act will often be used to escape the requirement of distinctiveness?

  4. As a general proposition a word that is purely descriptive of the goods in relation to which it is used is non-distinctive and ought not to be protected. Traders in general should not be deprived of the use of a word that they reasonably require to use in order to describe their goods. There are, however, certain exceptional cases where, due to their special significance and circumstances, descriptive words may warrant protection and a monopoly in their use being granted to certain persons or a group of persons. The requirement that a mark must be distinctive in order to be registrable under the Trade Marks Act makes that Act an imperfect vehicle for the protection of such a mark. Section 15 of the Merchandise Marks Act, on the other hand, does not require a word to be distinctive in order to qualify for protection. It is therefore a useful and appropriate vehicle for protecting words of this nature. That is not to say, however, that it should be freely used for this purpose and to provide a means of circumventing the requirements of the Trade Marks Act. It should be seen as an exceptional measure and it should be used sparingly and only in deserving cases for purposes of protecting non-distinctive terms.

    Section 15 is a discretionary measure and it has been used in the past for protecting a wide variety of marks, several of which are capable of being registered under the Trade Marks Act, and indeed have been concurrently registered under that Act. Historically non-distinctive marks have made up a very small proportion of the marks that have been protected under the Merchandise Marks Act, and that is how it should be.

  5. Is the “solution at hand” to the problem as proposed by Prof. Dean in fact a panacea to the problem?

    How would the proposal avail a competitor were, as is the likely senario, the French company to obtain registration of the trade mark ROOIBOS in respect of the dried leaves of combetium apiculatum?

    The answer is, I respectively suggest, Not at all.

  6. Once a Geographical Indication is protected in its home country (as would be the case if ROOIBOS is declared a prohibited mark, subject to appropriate conditions, under the Merchandise Marks Act) member countries of the TRIPS Agreement, including France, would be obliged to grant it protection in their local jurisdictions. In the situation postulated, the French Registrar ought then to refuse registration of the mark, or the South African Rooibus Association would have valid grounds to oppose an application or cancel a registration in respect of ROOIBOS. The same situation would apply in France as would apply in South Africa if a South African trader sought to register CHAMPAGNE in respect of wine, grapes or crushed products of the vine.