Vodka makers squabble over booze trademarks

  • 2000-05-11
  • By Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - When the Soviet Union crumbled, so did the state control over Latvijas Balzams, which had been producing alcoholic beverages for the local market and for export since the 1940s. Today, there is an attempt by Russian companies to reclaim trademarks of goods produced in Latvia for the Soviet Union, especially the vodka labels Moskovskaya and Stolichnaya. The former owner of the trademarks in Latvia, Sojuzplodimport of Russia, has been fighting Latvijas Balzams in court since the early 1990s.

"After the Soviet Union broke up, Latvijas Balzams was no longer under Sojuzplodimport's control, so they continued the production of Moskovskaya. In 1992 Sojuzplodimport filed an application for the registration of the trademark Moskovskaya in Latvia. Sojuzplodimport obtained it in 1995. According to law, Latvijas Balzams was supposed to stop producing and selling Moskovskaya in Latvia, which they did. After negotiations with Sojuzplodimport they got a license to use the trademark in Latvia," Natalia Anohina, property attorney at Agency Tria Robit, explained.

Vladimirs Anohins, patent attorney at this agency, said Latvijas Balzams and Sojuzplodimport could not reach an agreement because Latvijas Balzams wanted the right to export.

"Sojuzplodimport did not agree to these terms and gave only a right to produce and sell in Latvia," Anohins said.

In 1997 the Supreme Court in Latvia ruled in favor of Latvijas Balzams, giving them the right to the trademark Moskovskaya in Latvia.

"Since they couldn't reach an agreement, Latvijas Balzams filed an opposition to the board of appeal in Latvia, which canceled the Sojuzplodimport registration of the trademark Moskovskaya, on the grounds that Latvijas Balzams was producing Moskovskaya since 1945, and Moskovskaya was known to the local public as being produced by Latvijas Balzams," Dimitri Anohin, managing director of Agency Tria Robit, said.

Rita Voronkova, a spokeswoman for Latvijas Balzams, said Latvijas Balzams has been distributing Moskovskaya in Latvia only since 1997.

"We have never applied to distribute it anywhere else. Sojuzplodimport wants this area to themselves. Therefore there have been many court cases and in connection with these cases there is always a huge PR campaign from Sojuzplodimport's side," said Voronkova.

Agris Bitans, Sojuzplodimport's attorney in Latvia, told LETA April 28 that legal proceedings have been started in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden since representatives of Sojuzplodimport established that Moskovskaya was being retailed there.

"On a bottle of Moskovskaya bought in Spain it said on the label 'Distilled and bottled in Latvia by Latvijas Balzams,' and on the backside of the bottle on the smaller label it said, 'Importador para Espana: Productos Afro Tropicalas S.L.' This means Latvijas Balzams knew where that bottle was going," Anohin said.

Hilda Lilje, brand manager at Latvijas Balzams, said the wholesaler is responsible for the usage of the trademark according to contracts with Latvijas Balzams.

"Manufacturers cannot be responsible for where the product ends up after the wholesaler buys it. They (Sojuzplodimport) should be dealing with their own wholesalers," Lilje said.

Another hearing in the Supreme Court was slated for May 4 concerning the annulment of Latvijas Balzams' right to the trademark Moskovskaya, but because of illness it has been postponed until June 20.

"Since Latvia is a member of WTO as of last year, they have agreed to respect world famous trademarks. Now Latvia has much more responsibility and we hope the Supreme Court will take this into consideration. We do not have to prove that Latvijas Balzams uses the trademark unlawfully. We are going to present these facts in court to show that this registration is why Moskovskaya appears illegally in countries outside of Latvia. To have a fake vodka produced in Latvia is a shame for Latvia," Anohins said.