Asia Minute: Trademarking Culture in New Zealand

Sep 13, 2019

It’s been more than a year since a Chicago restaurant sparked a local outrage here by trademarking the phrase “Aloha Poke.” Some legal issues related to that action are still pending, but this week there was a bit of an echo of that case in New Zealand.

“Kia Ora” is a Maori phrase. A greeting that can mean “be well” or “good luck” — it’s most often translated as “hello.”

For more than a decade, it’s also been the name of an inflight magazine put out by Air New Zealand.

All that has been fine, but now the airline has kicked up a storm of controversy by announcing plans to trademark an image using the phrase.

Indigenous groups are outraged. The Maori Council says it will take the airline to court if it goes ahead with its plans – which it called “an insult to all New Zealanders.”

The Council is also threatening a boycott of Air New Zealand, with its executive director telling reporters his suggestion to the airline would be, in part, to “stick to your core business because you . . . don’t get to trademark Maori words.”

For its part, a spokesperson for Air New Zealand says it has “huge respect” for the Maori language, and is only applying for a trademark for its stylized representation of the phrase — along the lines of a logo.

The timing of the public dispute is also particularly bad for the airline from a publicity standpoint.

Across the entire country of New Zealand, this happens to be the annual observation of Maori language week . . . Kia Ora!