Rooibos storm finally off the boil

The storm in a tea cup over the use of the word “rooibos” finally ended this week with an agreement that worldwide registration of the name will be cancelled.

This follows final agreement between the Rooibos Limited company, the Western Cape government, the Department of Trade and Industry and the international trademark holder over a protracted R6-million rights and licence fee dispute.

“It has taken a long time and we have at last done it,” Martin Bergh, managing director of Rooibos Limited said on Friday.

“We have always agreed that nobody should need to protect the name because you don’t need to protect the word ‘orange’,” he said.

The plant is believed to have been first introduced to botanists in 1772 by the Khoi people.

The name “rooibos” was registered in the American Patents Office in 1994 to a company called Forever Young, owned by cosmetics giant Annique Theron.

According to the Annique website, Theron rediscovered the tea and “stumbled upon” the plant’s healing powers in 1968 while looking for something so soothe her allergy-prone child.

Company literature credits her with discovering the anti-allergic properties of the tea as well as external uses of the plant, and lists a number of awards she has received and books she has written on the matter.

This includes Best Female Inventor of the Year conferred on her in 1997 by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in Geneva. It said that Theron had been offered an honorary doctorate for her work but she obtained “the real McCoy” from the Commonwealth Open University in London.

However, in 2001, shortly after the first legal challenge to her registration of the name, an “emotionally drained” Theron decided to transfer US ownership to Virginia Watkins-Burke for $10, a company statement said.

Registration of name means that companies using it could be liable to payment of a licence fee and, according to Rooibos Limited, even tea shops came under the spotlight.

Bergh said that the initial registration of rooibos in 1995 took place before the advent of the world wide web and now a Google search would have prevented it.

In terms of the settlement, worldwide registration of the word “rooibos” would be cancelled and the name would be regarded as generic—without a brand name.

A Missouri court judge ruled in support of this earlier, but Watkins-Burke had intended to appeal.

The settlement means that the appeal would also be dropped, Bergh said.

“There was just evidence, evidence and more evidence and the cost [of the litigation]” he said.

Bergh said it was now up to the authorities to take the next step in deciding whether to gain geographic recognition of the name as products like port and champagne were protected in this way.

Proclaimed worldwide for its health properties and only grown in the Western Cape, the common name of Aspalathus linearis is derived from the colour the tea cuttings take during a process of oxidation brought on by mechanical bruising.

A statement issued by Theron’s company confirmed that Rooibos Limited, Watkins-Burke and Forever Young had signed an agreement that the word “rooibos” had become too generic of nature to be able to be registered as a trademark.

They would deregister all similar trademarks in other parts of the world.

“The implication of this settlement is that the word ‘rooibos’ may now be freely used in any product by any distributor whilst the brand name of a product e.g. “Annique Rooibos” will still be protected by intellectual property laws.”

The statement ended with a tribute to the awareness of Rooibos created by Theron.

“Local rooibos producers have benefited greatly from the awareness of the good qualities of rooibos created by Dr Theron. A previously almost non-existent rooibos market is now booming, creating numerous job opportunities for local rooibos farmers and workers in the beauty industry,” the statement said. -Sapa

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