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Keeping 'Idaho Potatoes' From Becoming 'Brussels Sprouts'

You've heard of fake designer handbags and imitation Apple stores. Well, the state of Idaho is worried about knock-off potatoes. Idaho is trying to block a trademark on the word “IDAHO” in Turkey. The state sees it as a potentially costly threat. But controlling the global brand is no easy task.

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, when an agricultural company in Turkey filed a trademark application for the word “IDAHO,” alarm bells went off at the agency charged with enforcing Idaho's agricultural brand.

“I think it's clear. They want to create a brand and they want to call it 'Idaho',” says Patrick Kole, Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs for the Idaho Potato Commission.

Kole says the danger isn't just that Idaho producers would be barred from using “IDAHO” in Turkey … but that the term could become diluted, or, to use the word that strikes fear into the heart of people like Kole … “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.”

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,” saying “There is a group or a company in Turkey who is envious of our trade label, 'Idaho.'”

A resolution against the Turkish trademark passed unanimously out of the Idaho legislature. But on the House floor, Phylis King, a Democrat from Boise, had a question.

“Are they using Idaho seed or something? Why are they, why … why do they want to do that?”

Why, indeed? That's a question I put to someone who knows her Turkish.

Pelin Basci teaches Turkish language and literature at Portland State University.

“‘Idaho’ itself doesn't mean anything in Turkish," she says. "And I’ve tried different variations on this. It's not even remotely Turkish.”

Basci adds, 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.”

One place that does have the answer is Beta Ziraat, the Turkish agricultural company itself. After unanswered emails to the company and its attorney, I tried calling and eventually reached someone at the company who didn't want to be identified. He says Beta Ziraat hopes to use the “IDAHO” label to market its own seeds for various vegetables. But not potatoes. As for why – he says Turkish farmers just like foreign sounding names, like Idaho.

According to the employee, Turkish patent authorities are already reconsidering the trademark because of the reaction in the U.S.

Seattle trademark and copyright lawyer Bob Cumbow says even if Idaho wins this round, maintaining the rights to place names is an uphill battle in the global economy.

“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.”

So far, the Idaho Potato Commission has trademarked Idaho, Grown in Idaho, and other variations of that in 10 countries. But that leaves out a lot of places – including Turkey.