Are Ethiopia’s Trade Mark Laws Keeping Pace With Its Economy?

For the past decade, Ethiopia has been among Africa’s fastest growing economies, no mean feat for a non-oil producing country. It has a population of 100 million, with growing industrial and agricultural sectors that are supported by strong trading partners. However, until 2013 (the effective date of the 2006 legislation), Ethiopia had no trade mark legislation, leaving it to trade mark owners to publish cautionary notices to gain any semblance of trade mark protection. New trade marks legislation coincided with, or was perhaps precipitated by, increased trade.

While the introduction of specific legislation was welcomed, the legislation drew criticism for making trade mark filing too burdensome. The onerous requirements were said to have been included with the aim of discouraging speculative trade mark filings by 3rd parties who were not the true trade mark owners – typically of famous marks. The anomaly, however, is that the requirements are only burdensome for foreign applicants, those who are in most need of protecting their famous trade marks. By contrast, filing a trade mark for a local applicant is straightforward.

The legislation provides for the protection of unregistered famous trade marks but, in practice, the Tribunal and Court of Appeal have set local use as a requirement for protection in decisions they have handed down. Also, Ethiopia is still not a signatory to the Paris Convention. In recent months, The Tribunal and Court of Appeal have refused trade mark oppositions by trade mark owners who sought to prevent third parties from registering blatant copies of their famous trade marks. The cases in question related to logo trade marks that were instantly recognisable to people of all ages and cultures – truly famous marks – which had ostensibly been copied from genuine articles produced by the trade mark owners.

These decisions represent a step backwards for a country that has moved so far forward in the past decade. It is likely that adjudicators are still finding their way in what remains a relatively new legislative framework. What is more certain, however, is that Ethiopia is no longer that forgotten little country at the Horn of Africa. It is a land of opportunity in which government incentivises those who lead the way. Its rise to prominence demands forward planning and a clear trade mark filing strategy to tap into a new market for goods and services.

Dale Healy
Partner | Trade Mark Attorney