Many who enjoy champagne have noticed that their favorite cuvée has quietly changed its label. Many of the world’s bottles of bubbly now indicate that they contain “sparkling wine” when they used to be “champagne.” Those who enjoy Basmati rice or Camembert cheese also have noticed changes to the names of their favorite products. What happened? Why we are now drinking sparkling wine when we used to enjoy champagne, or why we must settle for brie when we previously enjoyed Roquefort?

Although the names have changed, the products probably have not. Rather, many countries have created a system which recognizes and protects the value of the intellectual property associated with the geographic origin of certain products. Functioning like a trademark, a geographical indication can represent valuable intellectual property by identifying a particular region as the source of a certain product. Although not traditionally protected by trademark laws, geographical indications and designations of geographic origin have traditionally been afforded protection by various countries. Long known for its famous varieties of cheese, wine, and, of course, champagne, France introduced one of the first systems designed to protect geographical indications, known as appellation d’origine contrôlée, or the “AOC.” Sacre bleu! The AOC makes it unlawful to manufacture and sell a product under a geographical indication identified by the AOC unless that product complies with a set of strict criteria, including production of AOC-protected products in particular regions.

International agreements recognize designations of geographic origin and geographical indications as valuable intellectual property subject to protection. The World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (commonly known as “TRIPS”) provides protection for geographical indications where goods in a region or locality have developed a reputation or other characteristic essentially attributable to its geographic origin. For example, under TRIPS, onions can only be sold as “Maui onions” if they are grown on the Hawaiian island bearing the same name. Likewise, under TRIPS, your favorite sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it originates from that particular region of France.

Acquiring protection of geographical indications is not automatic. Each country that has agreed to the terms of the TRIPS agreement first must permit registration of geographical indications within their borders. Further, all member governments must provide opportunities under their domestic intellectual property laws which permit the owner of a registered geographical indication to prevent the use of trademarks which tend to mislead the public as to the geographical origin of the particular good in question. These governments may refuse to register a trademark, or invalidate an existing trademark, where that mark has a tendency to mislead the public as to the actual origin of the product underlying that mark. Obviously reflecting a strong lobby from the French, Article 23 of the TRIPS agreement provides that all nations covered by the TRIPS agreement must provide the owner of a geographical indication the ability to prevent the use of such indications on wines and spirits which originated outside of the proper geographical region. The grapes of wrath are ripe on the vine – misleading geographical indications relating to wines and spirits must be discontinued, even where there is no evidence of actual confusion among the buyers of these products.

While consuming the contents of the champagne bottles might have been sufficient to avoid the onset of international conflict regarding the fizzy libation, it is the change to the bottles’ labels which has permitted makers of the bubbly to avert international conflict. So, next time you reach for a bottle of Ballatore or Chandon, you can be confident that it’s still the product you’ve become accustomed to, even though it’s not Champagne.