US Court To Gruyere Cheese People: No, You Can't Ban People From Calling Their Cheese Gruyere If They Aren't Your Neighbors

from the too-late dept

One of the more annoying trends in intellectual property is when regional consortiums try to lock up terms or language around a specific style of product with arguments that only that region can produce a certain thing. If you’re familiar with this concept, the first thing to leap to your mind will likely be one French wine group’s control over the term “champagne” in certain regions. Another example would be a consortium of Belgian chocolate makers trying to assert that nobody can advertise “Belgian-style chocolate” unless it comes from one of them. It’s all very silly, as it attempts to take a term that everyone recognizes as describing the style of a product and transform it into locked up language to be controlled by some specific originators. Like I said, silly, though, far too often, these consortiums get their way.

Not the case in the United States for a group of French and Swiss cheese-makers in the area surrounding Gruyeres, who attempted to get the term “gruyere” trademarked. After the the U.S. Dairy Export Council opposed the mark, and the USPTO somehow got this right for once and rejected the application over the term being generic, the Interprofession Du Gruyere and Syndicat Interprofessionel du Gruyere took the matter to the Eastern District of Virginia courts only to find the judge there has ruled against it too.

After a lengthy legal fight, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Gruyere cheese does not have to come from the area in or around Gruyeres, Switzerland in order to be labeled Gruyere, writing in his decision that Americans don’t associate that cheese with that town. The Interprofession du Gruyère and Syndicat Interprofessionel du Gruyère — the associations that represent Swiss and French Gruyere, respectively — filed the lawsuit after they were denied trademark protection for the word “Gruyere” last year.

“It is clear from the record that the term GRUYERE may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France,” the judge wrote, according to the AP. “However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled GRUYERE produced outside the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic.”

All of this legal actions follows months of the two foreign groups sending all kinds of threat letters to a variety of American dairy companies that produce gruyere cheese. Non-helpfully, those threat letters also often came with suggestions about what these companies should call their cheeses instead: alpine cheese and mountain cheese are both among the dumbest of the suggestions.

Now, while both parties have said they plan to appeal this ruling, it would be quite nice if that only resulted in a continued litigation smackdown. There is no un-ringing this bell; Americans have been consuming gruyere cheeses forever at this point and I’d wager the vast majority of them, like me until writing this post, weren’t even aware that a city called Gruyeres in Switzerland existed.

What’s next? Belgium style ales can’t be called that unless they come from that country? IPAs that can only originate in, ironically, England? Or maybe we can just stop being so absurd about all of this instead.

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Comments on “US Court To Gruyere Cheese People: No, You Can't Ban People From Calling Their Cheese Gruyere If They Aren't Your Neighbors”

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Wyrm (profile) says:


I don’t drink alcohol… but I would still like "champagne" to be actual Champagne.
Otherwise, what’s the point of naming wines?
If I go in a liquor store and shift bottles around on the pretext that they don’t have any difference anyway, I’m pretty sure people will start complaining.

So, at what point does "Champagne" become "any sparkling white wine"? What’s the difference between Pinot (Noir), Bordeaux, Beaujolais… They’re all red wines. What’ the difference between Scotch and Whisky? Or Vodka and Tequila? Or beer and ale?

For me they’re all simply "alcohol", so if you want to drink beer and I serve you vodka, you won’t complain, right?

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Note: I’m not talking about legal matters here.
I’m not a lawyer. Trademarks and origin labels are a complex matters that I’m not too mindful of as long as there is still a visible distinction somewhere between the original (e.g. "Champagne" from the actual Champagne region) and the generic (e.g. "Champagne" as a random sparkling white wine). If you’re the latter but intentionally label yourself as the former, I think there is a problem. (e.g. using "made in Champagne, France" or "AOC" labels)

I’m discussing the common use of these words.
I don’t mind some using them as generic terms, but I don’t mind some correcting it or using them "properly" either. If you get irritated so easily, think about something else that you care about being mislabeled. Your car, your favorite sports team, anything. Wouldn’t you correct others if they started using generic terms to represent them or, more on point here, if they called something you deem inferior by the same name?

Let’s say your neighbor buys a Toyota and keeps telling you about his "Ferrari". You tell him: "That’s not a Ferrari" and he replies "I swear, one more people telling me that my Ferrari is "just a car", I’ll punch him". What would you think of him?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

But what is the difference between wine made from champagne grapes in Champagne, France – and wine made from the same variety of grapes, produced with identical recipes, every ingredient identical, from grapes grown in a place with identical climate and soil chemistry?

And what word would you use to distinguish that wine from other types of sparkling wine?

Kaleberg says:

Re: Re: Re: French Champagne from champagne

French champagne has a distinct taste. A number of French companies grow grapes and manufacture sparkling wines in the US e.g. Mumms-Napa, Piper-Sonoma. They’re good, but they taste like American wines. There are different minerals in the soil, what the French call terroir.

I have no problem with people calling any sparkling wine champagne, though it’s a bit of a stretch with things like prosecco which really do taste different, but I can also understand why the French champagne makers feel that they now obligated to come up with a new name to distinguish their product since their original name, protected by law in the EU, is considered generic in the US. It’s like Kleenex brand facial tissues having to come up with a new marketing plan in Europe because everyone there calls any facial tissue kleenex.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"…wine made from the same variety of grapes, produced with identical recipes, every ingredient identical, from grapes grown in a place with identical climate and soil chemistry?"

No more than the difference between a person born in sowetoland, South Africa and, say, you. Why have two different names for what is essentially the exact same product?

The real thing where trademark makes sense is that it’s essentially an identifier. A wine which wasn’t made in the district of Champagne, France…isn’t made in Champagne, France. Selling it as if it was means falsely placing a label on a bottle which implies centuries of traditional vintners stand as guarantee for the product.

"And what word would you use to distinguish that wine from other types of sparkling wine?"

Whatever name you see fit to associate with wine produced from that region?

Honestly I wish more people did exactly that – can’t wait to browse shelves to spring Strumpfhosen Schnaps or a stiff glass of Podunk on unsuspecting guests…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Those poor people in Champagne, Switzerland… not even able to use their own name.

Though I wonder, if a Brit names a South African mountain after a French town… are they allowed to use the word? There was real champagne (not the Swiss kind) and everything.

And how much money should everyone else in the world have to pay Florida for violating their Florida Man trademark by also producing stupid people of the male persuasion?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"Those poor people in Champagne, Switzerland… not even able to use their own name."

Well, not for sparkling wine at least, though it’d be an interesting case to bring to court if they could show they had a longer history of making wine than the district of Champagne, France.

Of course, they could put that label on another local speciality.

"And how much money should everyone else in the world have to pay Florida for violating their Florida Man trademark by also producing stupid people of the male persuasion?"

On the one hand the fact that everyone can use a trademark in a meme or for private use is why I give the TM validity I’ll never extend to Copyright or many abuses of patent law.

On the other I’m happy to report that thus far morons aren’t a goods marketable enough to attract many trolls. I’m sure we’d have seen some by now if that were the case.

Gripping hand though? I’d really love for floridas governor to try to trademark that concept. Self-awareness doesn’t seem to be a thing among the GOP these days…

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"…every time some idiot goes, "well, actually, what you’re drinking isn’t champagne, it’s sparking wine,"…"

It was always like that though – brand protection just wasn’t as global in those old days when we first learned words.
That said, sure, I grok why the residents of Champagne, Cognac, Cologne, etc would want to make sure variants of their regional specialty manufactured elsewhere isn’t just riding their coattails.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Would you rather it be the way that only people in a region in Thailand or a city in the US could call it that way? Because that’s what it’s like in Europe…"

Oh I know it’s that way in Europe. I wonder how much anti-EU sentiment was fed by the fact that people all over woke up one day and found their favorite foodstuffs had been rebranded as "apple drink resembling cider" or their breakfast sausage renamed as something completely different;

Bernard Woolley: "They cannot stop us eating the British sausage, can they?"
Jim Hacker: "They can stop us calling it a sausage though. Apparently it has got to be called the Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tube."
Bernard Woolley: "And you swallowed it?"

  • Yes Minister, "Party Games" christmas special.

The US certainly does have branding in similar or even far more draconian manner. It’s just that the brand name is rarely that of the local county. I invite here the comparison to a shoemaker making running shoes and trying to sell them as "Nike’s". It will not end well.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"But is champagne a trade mark, or should that be reserved to the actual makers…"

The way the french – now EU – AOC works is comparable to trademark law more than anything else. It’s just that the owner of the trademark is a geographic region (or in some cases a tradition) rather than an individual.

Like most things IP you can sometimes make a case where it makes sense but any closer scrutiny at all will reveal issues ranging from ridiculous all the way to dysfunctionally crippling.

Trademark and branding sort of works, most of the time. The drawbacks are usually outweighed by actual and reasonable benefits. That gives this sort of thing legitimacy. And regional classifications do sort of make sense. Out of all things IP naming is the only thing which really does make a case for itself.

Patent law has a whole lot more issues. Particularly so when in most areas what is patented manifestly isn’t original or new. Or in case of medicine, actually paid for mainly by the public purse.

Copyright is the blistering abomination of old heresy law and censorship put in private hands to prevent people from passing on what they found interesting. For the effective enforcement of which we’ve discovered that reversing burden of proof and abolishing vital parts of legal principle is necessary.

champagne, gruyer, Ford, etc…these are all brand names. Identities. That californian vintner making a sparkling wine of his own should just push it on the market and try to make the Monterey as big a name as the Champagne.

Much of the reason for this lies with the consumer. Connoisseurs who are enough to spend big money on the Good Stuff care about the name on the label. Fanbois will fanboi and that’s how the market rolls.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How about requiring local manufacture of "Swiss cheese&

A more interesting example is cheddar cheese, named after and invented in the village of Cheddar in England—which doesn’t have a protected designation of origin, because the idea that a village of 6000 people could meet global demand is absurd. The USA alone produces more than a teragram of cheddar per year. Also, like champagne, the term’s origin is an obscure bit of trivia and not interpreted by anyone (except EU bureaucrats) as a reference to any place.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

The only protection I want is to stop calling non-dark beers imperial.

I’m browsing the selection of hipster microbrews at the local independent co-op and I see the magical word "imperial" and it’s followed by the groan-inducing IPA.

If it ain’t an imperial stout or an imperial porter, it’s imperial piss water.

Hashtag first world beer privilege problems…

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Not that I would want to restrict Belgian ale to beers brewed in Belgium."

Looking at how Belgians brew ale the word "restrictions" wasn’t the first word which came to my mind.

I think belgians have their own version of rule 34. I don’t know for sure that there’s a belgian ale brewed in a geyser on iceland using liquorice, dragonfruit seeds and swedish surströmming…but I’ll bet good money that in writing this some Belgian brewer, compelled by instincts s/he couldn’t name, is already packing their kettle for a long trip…

Captain Dumbdumb says:

Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll....

Geographic ignorance is not an excuse and neither is ignorance of the customs of other cultures when it comes to naming products. The geographic origin designation is a sort of consumer protection (as well as protection from competition). Europe has a long history of referring to food products originating from a certain geographic location by that locations name. Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Gruyere, Emmental (what American’s call "swiss cheese"), Roquefort, Manchego, Parmigiano, etc. are all good examples of products from protected domains. This designation comes with a ton of constraints, including the ingredients that can be used, how it must be processed, times of year that it can be made, how long it has to age etc. Bottom line is that the designation acts as a kind of guarantee of quality and style of a product. Outside of this designation, there are no meaningful controls to ensure that the use of the name is not abused. If we take parmesan cheese as a commonly known example: you can get excellent parmesan cheese from Wisconsin, but you can also get stuff that is an insult to the name. The product from Italy may not always be as good as the top products that you could get from Wisconsin, but it is consistent, and as a consumer, I know what I am buying if I buy the real stuff rather than the imitation.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ryunosuke says:

Re: Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll....

More famous exaples PDOs and PGIs are Scotch, Tequila. Porto (or Port Wine), and Madiera Wine.

I agree this is mostly a quality control thing rather than trade groups being dicks about it. The above examples, including Champaigne has to, by law, be made with specific ingredients using specific processes and is highly regulated.

in fact, I think the opposite is true and the the US is being a dick about it and muscling in on trade markets it wants.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll....

I live in an area that grows the same grapes, in identical soil chemistry, under an identical climate using identical non-grape ingredients (wine yeast, etc) as those used in the Champagne region of France to make ‘real’ champagne.

The results are so identical to ‘real’ champagne, even the snootiest wine experts can’t tell the difference. So what is the consumer protection interest in claiming that identical sparkling wine made from champagne grapes isn’t champagne?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll....

"So what is the consumer protection interest in claiming that identical sparkling wine made from champagne grapes isn’t champagne?"

I don’t know. What consumer interests are protected if I claim my nickname is "Bergman"?

Or if GM claims their newest Fiesta is a Toyota?

Brand is an identity thing. The thing to do if you want your local vintner to have a catchy name for their sparkling wine isn’t to nick the name of another, identical product, but to use their own.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll...

But, champagne identifies a region, or style of wine, and not a producer. The quality of champagne from Champagne itself varies depending on the producer. Also wines can vary a bit by year, so for consistent quality one look to get the same vineyard and year.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a trol

"But, champagne identifies a region, or style of wine, and not a producer."

All true. What do you want me to tell you, that it doesn’t really make sense? This…is marketing.

I offer an example of when on my first job I once visited one of the plant where they made our products. The supervisor asked me if I could see the two tanks in the yard to which led exactly one pipe, splitting off in two ends.

"You see the one on the right? That’s product X. High performance, high quality, high price. The one on the right? Cheap shit, we only toss it in as an extra or for customers looking to serve quantity rather than quality".
"But.." Said I, "…both those tanks are filled from the same pipe…?"
"Wonders of branding, kid." he replied.

It’s pretty much cookie-cutter template that branding is central. A generic medication may be identical to the same product made by Merck. But one package will cost ten times more. An office chair from a reputable manufacturer will cost much more than the same chair made by some no-name company.

People pay for the name. That’s always been the case.
From one point of view I see it as the madness that it is.
From the other point of view I realize that yeah, but people also want to be able to make the choice of whom they give their money. And branding serves the market well in that regard by – in the case of the Champagne example, identifying *that particular bottle as coming from the district of Champagne.

Branding is driven by two main factors; Identification and Cultural snobbery insisting the first must be supplied.

Common sense doesn’t come into this. People demanding something exclusive at which to accurately hurl greenbacks, does. Thus a market is served.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: Oh god, I'm going to (unintentionally) be a troll...

And it’s not just the chemistry, you also have the bacterial flora in the dirt that affect things. Most plants rely on colonies of nitrate-fixing bacteria living on their root-system, so if you have wildly different strains of those it will affect the taste of the grapes even though the soil chemistry happen to be a close match.

Bluegrass Geek (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Bourbon isn’t unique to Kentucky, though. It may have originated here, but plenty of other places make it. It doesn’t even have to be from Bourbon County in Kentucky to count as bourbon, it just has to follow certain standards of how it’s made.

Which is exactly why the whole Gruyere thing is silly. Maybe if they were arguing that cheese which doesn’t meet a certain standard of production shouldn’t be called Gruyere, that would make sense. But just saying "If it’s not made here you can’t call it that" is plain silly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I can appreciate the geographic region argument regardless of the ingredients and processing. Being Peruvian, there is a type of brandy called Pisco named after the port to the south of Lima. In Chile, they have a liquor also named Pisco but it is very different in color and flavor profile. There was a long lasting dispute over the origin but at present they have an agreement that denotes the country of origin in the name (Peruvian Pisco and *Chilean Pisco) and other standards.

Seeing the ravages of free trade agreements especially on smaller producers, I think it is a fair to say that protectionism in the form of branding is the least concerning issue. Americans simply don’t know Gruyere is the name of a town because it is a sign dissociated from it’s original meaning in the American cultural context.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Re: [not learning a lesson]

Perhaps the U.S. actually did learn a lesson about locking up geographic names for branding.

Historically, some people out on the coast have locked up the name “Hollywood”. As a result, people in the city of that name, and surrounding areas in Broward County, often cannot use that name to describe their goods, services, and business.

David says:


Belgium style ales can’t be called that unless they come from that country?

Well, it would certainly serve as a warning label. I have no idea what you call "Belgium style ale" but living next to Belgium, the real thing evokes overfermented runoff from a manure heap that often enough is dressed up with some sort of syrup.

Certainly warrants a label unique to that stuff not likely to even leave the country.

Captain Dumbdumb says:

Re: Re: Well...

Don’t worry about Belgian Waffles – they don’t exist. You can get either a Gaufre de Liege (a sweet, buttery, dense and chewy, heavenly concoction that just goes thud in the stomach – just don;t think about the calories) or a Gaufre de Bruxelles (an unsatisfying, fluffy light thing that can occasionally taste nice but is usually uninspiring – kinda like the EU….).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I feel so sorry for these guys

That’s kind of a weird example. Is it or has it ever been popular to refer to playing non-Nintendo systems as "playing Nintendo"? In my experience, the phrase was always a reference to actual hardware made by Nintendo, and declined in popularity as Nintendo got some competition.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I feel so sorry for these guys

Seems like the sort of thing a kid would roll their eyes at before correcting their parents.

We would, but the parents would keep on making those mistakes until we grew up and finally had the authority to correct them. Also, as you said, Nintendo got competition from Sega, Sony, and Microsoft.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: A bit late

You enforce it, you’re a troll.

Uh, no, context and tone matters.

If it’s an unrelated industry and you’re going nuts because the name is similar that’s likely to get you called a troll.

If your first response to a potential infringement is to threaten to destroy the other company unless they immediately cease and desist, that’s also likely to get you called a troll.

If it’s the same industry and you send a polite ‘Hey, your trademark is a little too similar to ours for comfort, we’d appreciate if you could change that’ that’s probably not going to earn the troll label.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: A bit late

"You enforce it, you’re a troll. You don’t, and you lose it. "

That’s…not really how it works. There has to be a reasonable similarity between the products

If you sell the beer Podunk Yokel Dong and some other asswit decides to send a potable under that same name then you have a case to defend.

If the local adult store – the one next to "Four Seasons Total Landscaping" for instance – sells a product under the same name you probably neither have nor want a case to defend.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

As a consumer...

there’s a vast difference between "Gruyere cheese" and "Gruyere-style cheeese".

The former I’d assume was made in Gruyere to the local standard. The latter is a similar kind of cheese made somewhere else.

Sort of like the difference between "chocolate" (acutal chocolate) and "choclatey" (anything brown and sweet).

I guess I’m an extreme moderate here. I’m fine with saving the regional names, but adding "-style" seems clear enough to me to legitimately distingish other things.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Used to be when someone else was horning in on your schtick, you didn’t really care.
You made a better product & advertised that fact.
Adding the line like ‘taste it as it was originally created’ oooh how about this oldie but a goodie… ‘Contented Cows make better milk’.

Rather than compete, stomp your feet well after the horse got out of the barn, the barn was razed, a walmart was built on top of it, a tornado flattened the walmart, they opened a mobile home park on it and demand the government stop people from using a word that described the flavor and texture of a cheese.

I’m rooting for the tornado.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Used to be when someone else was horning in on your schtick, you didn’t really care. You made a better product & advertised that fact."

Well, yeah, but brand protection is as old as dirt. If you give your particular cheeze a weird name then you defend that one, because you don’t want the shoddy asshat next door to sell his curdled milk under your name and giving you a bad rep over it.

I mean if you’ve put in the work to make your "Slickpoo fudge" a success in the candystores then the last thing you need is for some shitwit out of Mud Butte to sell his offers under the slickpoo label. Both of which, I have to add, are actual US city names. ????

MLadd says:

for once, I disagree with your conclusion

I have to disagree with your position regarding regional protections of products. I lived in the US and Europe and I can say each approach makes sense on each continent.
Domestic (American) Gruyere can be found commonly in the US as well as Parmesan, Gouda, etc. The American versions, however, aren’t an “apples to apples” comparison. Domestic Prosciutto, for example, is an inferior product compared to the protected Italian version. A Cuban-style cigar is not really equivalent to the island product. I believe here in New Mexico you can only call green chiles from Hatch, NM Hatch, “Hatch green chile”. Otherwise, they must be called the varietal “Anaheim”. Why does that matter? New Mexicans prefer to buy local chiles grown in NM. The locals consider hatch chiles superior. (Maytag Blue cheese would be a similar example. It is pretty unique.)

Domestically, unless otherwise noted, we assume salami came from someplace like Chicago and not Italy. “Domestic Gouda” pretty much sums up the fact it isn’t Dutch. This is why “Belgian style chocolate” or even the name “Champagne” make sense in the US. If it comes from America I guess you are trying to convey a sense of the product?

While living in Europe, chocolates from each country were distinct in character. Swiss chocolate does not resemble Belgian chocolate. Belgian beer is definitely not German beer.

Finally, yes, sometimes common sense seems to collide. Champagne is a great example. Champagne is an odd example where it is a unique product and a regionally protected one. (I recall a strange German beer that had blocks of yeast in the bottle with a regional protection as well). In this instance the protection mark seems to break down against the naming convention (and yeah, agreed it does).

As Americans, we can roll our eyes and toast cheap domestic champagne instead of Champagne. If I am in Spain, however, I expect my $150+/lb Iberico ham to have eaten a diet of exclusively acorns in Spain not pine cones in Iowa.

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