Intellectual property rights to maximise Jamaica's creations

Yentyl Williams

In 1891, Jamaica hosted its first globally publicized ‘International Exhibition’ to promote local products and attract investments to the island, inspired by the successes of exhibitions such as the London Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace (1851) and the Paris Great Exhibitions (1700-1800s). While the 1891 exhibition is seldom remembered, the London and Paris exhibitions continue to be studied in intellectual property courses the world over, as it was in this context—that of the Industrial Revolution—that intellectual property protections were first developed and employed to safeguard and promote innovations.

Since that time, Jamaican law has not kept pace with the evolution of international IP protections, limiting Jamaica’s ability to fully capitalize on local ingenuity and innovation. CAPRI’s growthless jobs report, while outlining the general trend of low unemployment and stagnant growth in the Jamaican economy, noted improved productivity in the agricultural sector, even as the share of workers declined from 18 percent in 2015 to 16 percent in 2021.  Additionally, 14 percent of new jobs created between 2015 and 2022 were among craft/trade workers, and 18percent of these were formal jobs. These statistics bode well for agricultural and craft product development, the gains of which can be augmented through promotion and protection through intellectual property tools, particularly Geographical Indication law.

However, a recent visit to the 69th Denbigh Agricultural and Industrial Food Show, Jamaica’s annual hallmark agricultural event in Clarendon, revealed lingering challenges and opportunities in this domain.  Amidst the local creativity on display, from local wines made from Java plum, guinep, and sorrel, to craft pieces such as coconut leaf hats, there were few indications of intellectual property protections being employed to safeguard these innovations. The forthcoming Falmouth’s artisan’s village targeting tourists arriving via the cruise ship terminal, which benefited from J$1 billion of public funds, will likely expose the same disappointing reality as Denbigh—national outputs not taking advantage of intellectual property laws.

In 2004, Jamaica introduced a law governing Geographical Indications, a sub-set of intellectual property that protects ‘origin products’. The pertinent feature of geographical indications as a facet of IP is its protection of community rights, whereas trademarks pertain to private rights. These designations highlight the quality, characteristics, and reputation of products tied to a particular place of origin. Noteworthy examples include France's Champagne, Italy's Parma ham, and India's Darjeeling tea. Since 2015 and 2016, ‘Jamaican Jerk’ and ‘Jamaican Rum’ are the only two Jamaican products to benefit from Geographical Indication protection. Even Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee--considered as the ‘Champagne of coffees’ for its quality and reputation--has not yet been accorded Geographical Indication status, despite its international prestige and its origins in a specific soil and climate (‘terroir’). Additionally, a plethora of other Jamaican indigenous products stand as promising candidates for Geographical Indication status:  Jamaican scotch bonnet, Trelawny Yellow Yam, Jamaican Ortanique, Jamaican Ginger, St. Elizabeth thyme. Craft products from Jamaican Thatch, Castleton Clay, and sisal can also be protected and promoted using Geographical Indication laws.

A recent academic publication assessing six industries – castor oil, coffee, honey, jerk, rum, and cannabis – and three institutions – Jamaican Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA), the Jamaican Bureau of Standards (JBS) and the Jamaican Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) – outlines how Jamaica suffers from both a knowledge and institutional gap in relation to implementing Geographical Indication protections. While Jamaica boasts a 2017 national craft policy to boost ‘brand Jamaica’, there is potential for Geographical Indication laws to provide sustainable support for indigenous industries, in both the gastronomic and craft sectors.

Bringing more of Jamaica’s gastronomic and craft industry under the protection of Geographical Indication laws holds the potential for greater economic returns for the country and can also deliver social and environmental benefits.  By turning categories of products derived from features of our environment into community assets, geographical indications incentivise communities to maintain the country’s biodiversity. Examples could include endemic sources of timber, such as the Jamaican Blue Mahoe, Cedar, or Lignum Vitae wood, as well as Jamaican water sources and Jamaican Wellness Products. In so doing, Jamaica could replicate the added socio-economic impacts of geographical indications seen elsewhere, such as with Café de Colombia, Tequila from Mexico, and sarees from India.

To foster the growth and sustainability of these industries, the government and the private sector can engage strategically to map and safeguard the treasures of Jamaica's heritage products and innovations.  Such a transition especially has the potential to elevate indigenous producers from precarity to prosperity. Jamaica’s cultural heritage, a source of national pride and a hallmark of Jamaica’s unique tourism product merits the rigorous implementation of intellectual property protection to fortify its legacy, and, to combat the counterfeiting of our assets: 70 percent of the Jamaican Black Castor Oil in the UK is said to be falsely labelled, with imitations effectively free-riding on ‘brand Jamaica’. There is also no shortage of academic or policy guidance, as Dr. Natalie Corthesy’s recent publication provides the blueprint of how to maximise ‘brand Jamaica’ and geographic commons using intellectual property protections.

Echoing Jamaica’s motto "Out of many, one people," it is time to champion "Out of many, one protection": a call to strategically consider and take action, towards rejuvenating and uplifting the country’s indigenous industries, gastronomy and crafts, using the available but underused intellectual property protection of Geographical Indication laws.