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The Distinctiveness of Mānuka as a Taonga: Limitations of New Zealand IP Law in Protecting Māori Cultural Knowledge

Distinctiveness of Mānuka as a Taonga


In a recent trademark case in New Zealand, the issue of protecting Māori taonga (treasures) and mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) was brought to light. The case involved the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) and the registration of the term “Manuka Honey” as a certification trademark by the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society, representing a group of New Zealand honey producers. This article explores the limitations of New Zealand IP law in protecting taonga and mātauranga Māori, and suggests potential solutions for mānuka honey producers.

The Case

The Mānuka Honey trademark application dates back to 2015, when New Zealand honey producers sought to register the term. However, Australian honey producers opposed the application, arguing that the term was descriptive and not distinctive. IPONZ’s decision ultimately hinged on whether the average consumer would consider the proposed trademark as a normal way of designating characteristics of the goods in question. IPONZ concluded that the term “Manuka Honey” was not distinctive, as it was already extensively used by honey producers in both New Zealand and Australia.

Mānuka as a Taonga

Mānuka, a term sourced from te reo Māori, refers to a plant that is considered a taonga by Māori. Māori have a rich tradition of using the plant for various purposes, including medical treatments, the fabrication of objects, and cosmetic reasons. Mātauranga Māori, or traditional knowledge, about the unique characteristics of mānuka is directly connected to Māori culture. However, Māori rarely benefit from the commercialization of mānuka honey, particularly by overseas businesses.

Gaps in New Zealand IP Law

The mānuka case highlights the gaps in New Zealand’s intellectual property system when it comes to protecting taonga and mātauranga Māori. Although Assistant Commissioner of Trade Marks Natasha Alley acknowledged the taonga status of mānuka and the importance of Māori intellectual property rights, she concluded that the existing provisions of New Zealand IP law did not require considering the taonga status of plants or the existence of mātauranga Māori when evaluating certification mark applications.

There has been ongoing discussion in New Zealand about the need to provide legal protection for taonga and mātauranga Māori, including through the intellectual property system. The 1991 Te reo Māori claim asked the Waitangi Tribunal to address Crown laws and policies that denied Māori control over taonga, which violated Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi. In 2011, the Waitangi Tribunal issued the Wai 262 report, which contained specific recommendations for reforming New Zealand intellectual property laws to protect taonga and mātauranga. However, some of these recommendations have yet to be fully implemented.

Potential Solutions

In the absence of comprehensive legal protection, mānuka honey producers in New Zealand could consider alternative certification trademarks or forms of cultural branding to distinguish their products from Australian-made honey. These new certification marks should not only pass the distinctiveness test but also require businesses that market mānuka to meet culturally appropriate standards, especially when mātauranga is involved. By emphasizing the uniquely bicultural character of Aotearoa, mānuka honey producers may still be able to attract consumers looking for products that embody this cultural aspect.

In conclusion, the recent trademark case regarding the registration of “Manuka Honey” as a certification trademark exposes the limitations of New Zealand IP law in protecting Māori taonga and mātauranga Māori. While efforts are being made to address these gaps, it may be necessary for mānuka honey producers to explore alternative methods of protecting their products and promoting their cultural significance. By doing so, they can contribute to the preservation and recognition of Māori culture in the commercialization of mānuka honey.


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