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GENEVA (Reuters) - Members of the World Trade Organization have started work on a draft proposal for a register to protect geographical names of wines and spirits as part of a push to secure a global trade deal this year.
Zambia's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Darlington Mwape, who chairs talks on the register, told negotiators on Thursday that it had been tough to get this far and laid down a tight schedule of meetings to produce a negotiating text by the end of March.
"Taking into account the profound divide that has been the hallmark of this negotiation group, I am heartened by the steps the group has been able to take this week," Mwape told a meeting of the WTO's 153 members.
Discussions on the register, which would protect "geographical indicators" or appellations like champagne and tequila, pre-date the Doha round to open up world trade, launched at the end of 2001.
But they have been folded into the overall Doha package, on which WTO members are holding intensified talks after leaders of the G20 rich and emerging countries called for a deal and said 2011 provided a window of opportunity.
Better protection for geographical indicators is a central aim of the European Union in the Doha round.
But Brussels has run up against scepticism from New World producers like the United States and Australia, where European names are often used generically, and where officials say existing forms of copyright and trademark make a register unnecessary.
The talks are separate to related negotiations on extending the superior protection enjoyed by wines and spirits in global trade rules to other products like ham and cheese or even traditional crafts. All regional names are protected to avoid misleading the public and to prevent unfair competition.
At Thursday's meeting Mwape circulated a draft covering notification of products, one of the six aspects of the register, following consultations earlier in the week with key players -- the first time in over 13 years of talks that the WTO's full membership was able to work on a single draft text.
Mwape asked negotiators to meet again in the week of January 24 when he hopes they will reach one of the most contentious topics -- the question of what legal commitments or obligations for WTO members would arise from registering a product.
Another issue to be negotiated is the question of whether the register would be voluntary or whether registration of a product would have implications for all members.
Even the draft text on notification circulated on Thursday still contains many differences that negotiators will have to iron out in the coming weeks.
Editing by Jason Neely