This week is Te Reo Maori week in Aotearoa (New Zealand), a week that promotes the use of Maori language. It is time where New Zealanders seek to expand upon their knowledge of Te Reo Maori, the Maori indigenous language of New Zealand ("Aotearoa" in Maori).
The use of Maori language in branding must be treated with respect. For brand owners, Maori language is more important than it may first appear. It is not uncommon for a brand owner to create what it considers to be an invented word only to find out that it is in fact Maori, or for a brand owner to misinterpret a Maori word - sometimes with unintended embarrassing consequences. Furthermore, in the Japanese language in particular, transliterations of numerous Japanese words are also, coincidentally, a Maori word.
Can all Maori words be registered as trade marks?
In New Zealand, for the purposes of trademark registration, a Maori word is taken to mean the same as its English translation, irrespective of whether the trademark owner either knew or understood the Maori meaning of the word. So, if a transliteration of a Japanese trade mark happens to create a Maori word it may encounter an unexpected distinctiveness objection.
In White Cloud Dairy Innovation Limited 1, the applicant sought to register the word KURA for various classes 5, 29 and 30 goods including, flavourings for beverages, ice cream and frozen yoghurt. IPONZ refused registration of the mark as "Kura" is the Maori word for "red, scarlet" and is thus descriptive and non-distinctive. In such a case there is no room for argument regarding consumers' knowledge of the Maori language nor whether the Maori word is less likely to be used for a particular product. As the Assistant Commissioner noted herself:
"I must assess the distinctiveness of the trade mark from the perspective of an ordinary person who is fluent in te reo Maori. Any other approach would not give proper recognition to the status of te reo Maori as an official language of New Zealand" 2.
It is worth noting that whenever registration is sought for trade and contains a Maori word or image, it should be referred to IPONZ's Maori Advisory Committee, to determine whether or not the word or image is likely to be offensive to Maori. However, as noted below, it is not the Committee's role to determine whether or not such a trade mark is otherwise registrable. In particular, the Committee will not obstruct registration of a trade mark such as KURA simply because "kura" is distinctive or descriptive. In that context, brand owners should not rely upon the Committee to determine whether or not a Maori word is appropriate or available use or register as a trade mark.
Be careful with use of te reo Maoriin branding
It is more common for a brand owner to adopt a Maori word as a trade mark, knowing of its Maori origins and meaning. However, as with many languages, Maori words can have different meanings - particularly if a word is missing macrons which in Maori indicate how the word is to be spoken. Two recent cases helped to demonstrate these risks. Although the risks do not present a strong legal risk they certainly can present embarrassing commercial ones.
- Independently, two brand owners adopted the Maori word huruhuru as a trade mark - one as a brand for a range of Canadian beer, the other for a range of leather goods. In both cases the parties correctly identified that huruhuru can mean "feather", which is why each of them adopted the trademark. However, it also has another meeting and one which, commercially, is not so helpful. Specifically, huruhuru also means "pubic hair"3.
- Weta Workshop is a special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, producing effects for television and film - including Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Weta to many people is understood as the name of an insect native to New Zealand, hence the name. However, the correct word is actually weta, with macrons over each vowel. So, what does "weta" mean? "Excrement", or its more colloquial equivalent, which we need not repeat here. Once again, not really the brand a business would want to adopt and use! 4.
In these cases, the Maori Advisory Committee will not step in to advise the brand owner. As noted above their role is only to determine whether or not adoption and use of Maori word or image is likely to offend Maori or particular Maori iwi (tribe).
How do you stay safe with te reo Maori brands?
The Maori language te reo Maori is a beautiful one, and as such is being adopted more frequently by brand owners seeking to associate themselves with New Zealand.
The safest option whenever creating such a trade mark is always to check all words which could potentially be Maori with the Maori dictionary and a New Zealand IP specialist, to investigate further. As shown above a brand owner may adopt and even register its brand containing Maori words - only to find that, in the words of Led Zeppelin's 'Robert Plant', "sometimes words have two meanings" 5 - one of which may be less complementary than the brand owner realises!
1 White Cloud Dairy Innovation Limited  (1) NZIPOTM 3 (13 January 2017)
2, ibid, para 18.
5 Stairway to Heaven, song by Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.