Trademark Censoring: Hungary Considering Banning Heineken Red Star Trademark Because Communism

from the huh? dept

When it comes to trademark law, it's worth repeating that its primary function is to prevent customer confusion and to act as a benefit for consumer trust. This mission has become skewed in many ways in many countries, but one of the lessons learned via the Washington Redskins fiasco is that even well-meaning attempts to have government play obscenity cop will result in confusing inconsistency at best and language-policing at worst. When government begins attempting to apply morality to trademark law in that way, it skews the purpose of trademark entirely.

To see that on display elsewhere, we need only look to Hungary, where the government is considering stripping the trademark protection for some of the branding for Heineken beer because it resembles the ever-scary demon that is communism.

The rightist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which faces an election in April 2018, says it is a “moral obligation” to ban the commercial use of symbols such as the swastika, arrow cross, hammer and sickle, and the red star. Heineken has had a star logo on its beer for most of the years since it was first brewed in the second half of the 19th century, changing to a red one in the 1930s. The star is thought to represent a brewers symbol or the various stages of the brewing process. But the red star was also a major symbol of Soviet communism and used to appear on the crest of communist-era Hungary.

Which, frankly, is entirely besides the point. It should be immediately clear how silly this sort of thing is. Stripping trademark rights for symbols tangentially related to causes a government doesn't like is bad enough, but outright banning their use in commerce is obviously a statist act by government. It does nothing to benefit the consuming public, one which will already be quite familiar with Heineken and its branding, and instead is a move designed to play on the strain of nationalism currently weaving its way through much of the West. But it accomplishes nothing concrete. Heineken isn't communism, no matter how many red stars it puts on its labels.

But dumb ideas like this necessarily come with even more extreme consequences.

Under the new law, businesses using these symbols could be fined up to 2 billion forints (€6.48 million) and jail sentence.

The danger in allowing the government to play language police in this way should be clear. Fortunately for us, this particular case in Hungary eschews the slippery slope entirely and instead simply jumps off of the corruption cliff.

Last week Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who jointly submitted the bill with Orbán’s chief of staff Janos Lazar, was quoted as saying that the red star in Heineken’s logo was “obvious political content”. At the same time, Semjén did not deny that the ban was linked to Heineken’s legal battle with a small, partly locally-owned beer maker in Romania’s Transylvania — home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians — over the use of a popular brand name there.

That's where this always will eventually lead, with government taking this sort of power and abusing it to favor one company over another. Hungary simply did us the favor of putting that on immediate display. If you're going to go full corruption, after all, why bother hiding it?


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  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 24 Mar 2017 @ 4:56pm

    Understandable

    While it may seem a bit extreme, it does improve sales to target your product toward the market you'll be selling to. Change the name, change the logo, whatever will make it sell better, even if it seems silly to others. Prime example - the Chevy Nova had to be renamed to sell in Spanish-speaking countries. Turns out, naming your car "it doesn't go" doesn't help sales any. Go figure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 24 Mar 2017 @ 4:58pm

    Last sentence in the article: "If you're going to go full corruption, after all, why bother hiding it?"

    I think that this is one of the things that has bothered me about politics in America since I was a kid.

    If i'm a corrupt Mexican president I privatize the Telecoms and leave office a billionaire.

    If I'm a corrupt Russian president I privatize the petroleum industries and stay in office forever, but as a billionaire.

    If I'm a corrupt lawmaker in most of the world (Brazil best current example) I make millions and am nigh untouchable.

    Here, Congress critters (and Governors etc) routinely go down for just thousands of dollars. Have they no shame? Or competence? (Looking at you Illinois governors.)

    At least the Hungarians are doing it for something worthwhile though. Beer. Puerile maybe, but hey... beer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Mar 2017 @ 5:27pm

    I can see it

    I mean it's not like a star has ever been used for anything not related to communism, so of course any use of a star is commie related.

    I gotta say, it's almost admirable how honest they are with their corruption. Flat out admits that the attempt to punish Heineken is related to the legal spat with a local brewery, like it's no big deal. If gross corruption was a trait to be proud of they'd have a lot to be proud of.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Mar 2017 @ 5:16pm

    Wouldn't it make more sense to encourage as many people as possible to use variations on this symbol for non-communist purposes? There is a very good reason why political groups create symbols and slogans after all. Encouraging (what is in essence) trademark dilution would go much further to damage the communist cause than whatever it is they are doing now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Coward, 26 Mar 2017 @ 3:23am

    Few European countries has had such a dark history with communist Soviet than Hungary. The last Soviet troops left the country in 1989. In the decades of occupation before 1989 600000 Hungarians were deported to Soviet labour camps, where about 200000 died. One could understand why the red star still make them a little irrational cranky

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike-2 Alpha (profile), 28 Mar 2017 @ 12:02am

      Re:

      Then let the market deal with it. If the Hungarian people - not the occasional lawmaker, but the actual people of Hungary - are that angered by red star imagery, let them handle it.

      Carlsberg beer used to use a swastika as part of their logo. Then Hitler happened, and they dropped it for the duration of the war and never brought it back. And they weren't alone. Suddenly, because of its association with a murderous madman, using the swastika in marketing was massively unprofitable.

      If the Hungarians are really that bothered and offended by the red star in the Heineken logo, they'll stop buying it. As a result, either they'll change the logo or withdraw from the market. Simple as that.

      Either way, trying to censor the star on the bottle is either a solution in search of a problem or, more likely, a politician in search of a payday.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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