With U.S.-Cuba detente, a battle over trademarks looms

Wed Nov 25, 2015 1:38pm EST
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By Jaime Hamre

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (Reuters) - When Julio Manzini decided two years ago to name his small restaurant McDonald's after the famous fast-food chain (MCD.N: Quote), he had no idea it could cause any trouble. He has since been frightened into removing the name.

"I don't even know what McDonald's tastes like, I just thought the name was striking, like Shakira or something," he said at the lunch counter of what used to be "Cafeteria La McDonald's Camagueyana" in the Cuban city of Camaguey, about 300 miles (500 km) east of Havana.This month, Manzini stripped "McDonald's" and the famous golden arches from his handcrafted sign as a precaution after he claimed his establishment was visited by a lawyer sent by the company.

The place is now simply called "Cafeteria La Camagueyana."

His counterfeit McDonald's illustrates a potential battlefront between Cuba and the United States over trademark and intellectual property rights as Cuba's economy opens up to more private enterprise and closer ties with the United States.

The two countries restored diplomatic relations this year after half a century of Cold War hostility and are now working to improve ties. Trademark and intellectual property issues will be on the negotiating table, both sides have said.

Both have grievances. The United States has denied Cuban companies the same trademark protection enjoyed by brands from everywhere else, forcing marquee names such as Havana Club rum and Cohiba cigars into long, expensive court battles.

And while Cuba protects trademarks registered with the government, it also tolerates or officially sanctions the resale of unlicensed music, software and entertainment. State television routinely pirates American movies and shows for broadcast.

In a socialist economy that only in recent years has allowed small-scale private businesses, knowledge of trademark law is poor. Manzini said he never thought to check with the Cuban Office of Industrial Property (OCPI) to see if the McDonald's name was available. It is not: McDonald's has registered trademarks in Cuba since at least 1985.   Continued...

A view of the private cafeteria "Mcdunald" in Villa Clara province, Cuba, November 14, 2015.  REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa