Today’s online influencers often seek to “monetize” an intangible – an opinion or reputation. In the world of fine products, no region has a better reputation or richer heritage than Europe.
Some of its refined, ground-breaking products developed over centuries have left their mark on civilization itself. As European cultures evolved, villages, monasteries, craftsmen, and families spent generations or even centuries discovering and developing products so important they are part of our way of life even today.
Agricultural products such as Champagne sparkling wine or Parmesan cheese are so well-known their names are in danger of losing their geographic connotation and passing into generic usage.
As a result, many agricultural products and foodstuffs have been granted geographic indicator (GI) status by various bodies, including the World Intellectual Protection Organization. Like all intellectual property rights, GI rights are enforced by national courts or government agencies. Sanctions allowed under national legislation can be civil, criminal or administrative. There are two main labels. The European Union awards the PDO label (Protected Designation of Origin) to high-quality agri-food products whose production steps occur in a specific geographic area according to the tradition and techniques recognized by local producers who use ingredients from the reference region. It is the case with Parmesan cheese or Parma ham. Another true mark of quality is the PGI label (Protected Geographical Indication) attributed to foods to safeguard the quality, reputation, and recipes of a specific geographic region.
The European Union’s administrative arm, the European Commission, is now moving to expand GI rights to non-agricultural products. A heritage designation for products such as Murano glass, Donegal tweed or Porcelaine de Limoges would strengthen action against fakes and provide dedicated support to authentic production houses.
To carry a certified GI tag, products must be made at their place of historic origin or by using the same time-honored techniques under license.
Murano glass, for example, carries a lineage in glassmaking dating back to medieval times. As glassmakers developed techniques using furnaces, in 1291 the Most Serene Republic of Venice ordered all glass producers working in the old town to move to an island in the lagoon named Murano following several alarming fires. The cosmopolitan canal city that would be a world center for printing, mapmaking and other historic innovations would also become synonymous with glass.
Yet today, even in Venice itself, some 70 percent of the objects on sale made of so-called Murano glass are fake, says Luciano Gambaro, head of an association that promotes the renowned glassware. Worldwide the level of fraud is likely incalculable.
More than monetizing an influencer’s opinion about fine products, the greater focus should be protecting the products themselves, especially if they are heritage items than can’t truly be replaced.
“Europe has an exceptional legacy of world-renowned crafts and industrial products,” says European Commission member Thierry Breton whose portfolio is the internal EU market. “It is time that these producers benefit from a new intellectual property right, like food and wine producers, that will increase trust and visibility for their products, guaranteeing authenticity and reputation.”
Once adopted, the regulation will apply to craft and industrial products such as natural stones, jewelry, textiles, lace, cutlery, glass, and porcelain.
To qualify for GI protection, a product must originate in a specific place, region, or country and have a “quality, reputation or other characteristic that is essentially attributable to its geographical origin”.
Breton said by protecting heritage products, the initiative would also contribute to the creation of skilled jobs, especially at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as aid in further development of tourism in “more rural or economically weak areas”.
The new rules announced last week would enforce EU-wide intellectual property rights on craft and industrial products and facilitate action against fake products, including those sold online. Breton said the move addresses “the currently fragmented and partial protections that exist at national levels”.
In announcing the initiative, a statement from the European Commission said GI status for products also supports the “development of rural and other regions by providing incentives for producers, especially SMEs, to invest in new authentic products and create niche markets”.
“The proposed regulation will also help to retain unique skills that might otherwise disappear, particularly in Europe’s rural and less developed regions. Regions would benefit from the reputation of the new GIs. This can contribute to attracting tourists and to creating new highly skilled jobs in the regions, thereby boosting their economic recovery,” said the announcement.
The new rules illustrate that like Europe’s historic physical wonders built over millennia, the vast work by previous generations to develop products can be difficult to maintain and protect. It also illustrates how Europe is struggling to more fully convert its heritage into economic value.
As the world moves online, pipelines for communication now have so much capacity to carry information that the lack of quality content has become the bottleneck. How to cut through all the noise to convey a concept of true value has become increasingly difficult.
Successful companies are effective in transforming know-how and intellectual property into revenue and profit. A heritage designation should help enable those manufacturers to command higher prices than similar products made in a factory.
Europe has a range of support mechanisms for small businesses, but they have not been built to grasp the unique opportunities in premium heritage markets or meet the challenges of multi-generational artisanal family businesses.
And as the business world picks itself up and dusts itself off after two years of lockdowns and impacts from a pandemic, a new approach is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Economic estimates say that without the recent aid granted in Covid-19 recovery packages, bankruptcy rates among European SMEs would have been 9 percent higher.
With a new beginning possible, let’s make the most of it. Protecting centuries-old European heritage in making fine products is a great start on the new journey.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy
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