Certification Marks and Geographic Indicators

A certification mark serves as a symbol of guarantee that the goods or services sold in connection with the mark meet certain standards and conditions.

Certification marks, unlike traditional trademarks, do not identify the source of goods or services. Rather, they identify the goods or services bearing the certification mark meet certain criteria and standards. Certification marks can indicate where certain products were produced, that certain products met certification safety guidelines, products were manufactured with union labor and more. 

More specific examples for certification marks include the (K) symbol which certifies any food products, such as dairy, “meet all requirements of the Mosaic Code and biblical requirements, so as to qualify them for Orthodox Jewish use and consumption, and thus of kosher quality.” A common certificate mark is for union made goods or performed services, such as the FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO UNION LABEL, which when used on produce certifies “that the labor involved in producing and harvesting the goods was performed by members of the applicant,” i.e. the Farmworkers AFL-CIO Union.

The kosher symbol of the circle K (seen above on TESS) has been in use since 1936 and is extremely helpful for Orthodox Jews to ensure they are only eating kosher certified food.

Unlike other trademark owners who can license, or refuse to license, their marks to anyone they please, the owners of certification marks to anyone who meets the standards of the certifying organization. If the certifying organization is arbitrarily refusing to license their certification mark to those who are correctly meeting all the necessary requirements, the certification mark can be subject to cancellation. For example, the owners of the ROQUEFORT certification mark for cheese must allow any cheese producer to use the certification mark if the cheese produced “has been manufactured from sheep’s milk only, and has been cured in the natural caves of the community of Roquefort, Department of Aveyron, France.” Certification marks based on geographic regions are also referred to as geographic indicators. 

ROQUEFORT cheese a pretty strict certification requirements. This goat cheese must be cured in caves in Roquefort, France. So fancy!

Geographic certification marks, also referred to as “geographic indicators,” such as ROQUEFORT cheese above, are often challenged for being generic. In fact, the ROQUEFORT certification mark survived a cancellation proceeding claiming it was generic. For example, SWISS CHEESE was found to be generic in the U.S. but SWISS used for chocolate is not generic. Why the difference? The courts held that Americans know that Swiss cheese does not come from Switzerland. It probably comes from Wisconsin or Vermont. But Americans do have an expectation that SWISS used in connection with chocolate does actually come from Switzerland.

The SWISS certification mark for chocolate as seen on TESS.

Do you have any questions about certification marks or geographic indicators? Leave a comment below or contact us.

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