Friday, August 08, 2014

Parmigiano? Panama hats? Skee-ball? What’s in a name, trademarked or not.

A few weeks ago, I meandered across an article on the EU rattling its trade swords over use of words like feta, parmesan, and champagne.After all, they claim, Americans scarfing down feta, parmesan, or champagne made in the US would alternatively – i.e., if we knew any better – be consuming the real thing:  Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy; feta from Greece; and French Champagne.

Seriously, folks. I don’t know what the big hoo-hah is here.

I think most of us, even blindfolded, could tell the difference between freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, which we know is authentically from Italy because it’s got a red-white-and-green label (okay: we wouldn’t be able to see the label if we were blindfolded…) or because we paid $21.99 a pound for it at Whole Food -  and what’s sprinkled out of the Kraft Parmesan Cheese can.

But that real Parmigiano can get pricey, and sometimes all you want to do is sprinkle a bit of pale yellow, cheese-like substance on your spaghetti. And you don’t really give a damn what the source. It’s not like you’re going to convince yourself that the Kraft Parm is great. But it’s an either-ors thing. You’re either not going to know the difference, because you’ve never heard of Parmigiano-Reggiano (even though Wal-Mart carries it) and you wouldn’t pay the price differential for it even if you did; or you do know the difference, and can’t afford to pay the price differential; or you don’t think the difference is worth the price differential.

If you’re still following me here… (Hey, it’s Friday and it’s been a long week.)

As for feta, I don’t buy it that often, but I do occasionally get a Greek salad for lunch, and I’ve never noticed that feta tastes like anything much other than feta. This may be because I have lucked out and only frequent (or not so frequent) sub shops run by real Greeks who wouldn’t be caught dead on Mt. Olympus serving feta from anywhere other than Greece. Or it may be because, blindfolded, I couldn’t taste the difference between good feta (i.e., made in Greece) or bad feta (made in the US).

Champagne, well…

If we use the broadest of definitions of champagne – screw the terroir – to include pretty much anything that’s sparkling and white (prosecco, cava…), this is the one alcoholic bev that I would miss if I were told I had to give up booze. (God forbid.)

I used to be a French champagne snob, turning my nose up at anything that sparkled out of California, let alone New York. (The Buffalo terroir????)

But over the years, I’ve happily swapped out “real champagne” for the proseccos and cavas of the world.

Sure, given the choice, who wouldn’t choose Perrier-Jouet over Taylor Sparkling, if only for the flowered bottle.

But, as with the Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Kraft Parm, most people aren’t buying cheapo, faux champagne believing it’s a perfect alternative to champagne. They’re buying it because it’s cheaper and the difference doesn’t mean a thing to them.

So, for all the huffing and puffing. All the trying to force the issue by labeling that states that something not made there is “in the style of.” Or making us Americans rename products. (Kraft could just call it grated cheese – if, in fact, it’s cheese at all. Maybe grated topper would be safer…). THERE REALLY DOESN’T SEEM TO BE ANY REAL ECONOMIC LOSS TO THE COUNTRY OF ORIGIN.

Caveat emptor.

If it’s all that important, look for the label. (Or look at the price tag.)

Shortly after I read the article about EU coming after American expropriation of their names – what’s next? kielbasa? – I saw a reversal kind of story.

Panama hats, it seems, are not made in Panama.

Their terroir, in fact, is Ecuador.

I don’t believe that the Ecuadorians are arguing for a rename. Ecuador hat doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I just think they want the Panama-hat wearing world to know from when cometh their topper.

And then there’s the case of Skee-ball Inc. vs. Brooklyn’s Brewskee-ball League for infringing on the use of their trademarked name.

Although I’m not interested in joining a skee-ball league – I’m just not enough of a hipster and/or bar denizen for that scene – I do love rolling a few games when I’m at an arcade. Next to Whack-a-Mole, I can’t think of an arcade game I like any better. So much fun rolling up the score, and how satisfying to see how many tickets you can accrue and turn in for swell prizes!

Anyway, I’m delighted that there’s a skee-ball league out there:

The national home is the Full Circle Bar in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, where league games take place three nights a week. At the back of the pub are three skee-ball machines. Spectators sit on raised seating to watch and cheer. A “wall of fame” celebrates top-notch players with names like “Skeeopatra”, “Brewbacca” and “Skeebron James”. “Snakes on a Lane” is a star. The league runs on puns. It has three seasons, or skeesons, a year; each lasts about three months from kick-off to championship final…

The league has its fair share of hipsters, but they somehow restrain themselves from playing it ironically. (Source: The Economist.)

You have to ask why Skee-ball, Inc. would have gone after the Brewskee-ball league to begin with. Lawsuits are expensive. And, unlike skee-ball, are no fun.

I know you want to protect your trademark, but isn’t skee-ball kind of the kleenex of indoor sports?

Daniel Gervais, an intellectual property professor at the Vanderbilt Law School, thinks the league has a good argument. If consumers continually confuse a brand and a product, it could mean that a trademark has lost its uniqueness. The same thing happened to aspirin, the escalator and the yo-yo. Richard Idell, SBI’s lawyer, disagrees. “Skee-ball is not a generic term. It is not going to hold up in court. The machines are called ‘alley-rollers’.”

Fortunately, the suit – make that suits: Brewskee-ball League had counter-sued -  have been settled. In true hipster fashion, Brewskee “turned to crowdsourcing to help pay its legal bills.”

Next time I’m in Williamsburg, I might just show up on league night and watch the action. To really go hipster, I might even put on a Panama hat. It’s no fedora, but still…

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