Company which trademarked greeting is accused of being ‘culturally tone-deaf’

News Article

Fiji has accused a US bar chain of ‘heritage hijacking’ after trademarking ‘bula’ – a common island greeting which local people claim has huge cultural significance.

The ‘bula’ trademark has been registered by Bula Nation, a company which owns a group of bars and cafes across Florida.

However, the Pacific nation has hit back, claiming that the trademark is hugely insensitive.

“We would never give permission for anyone – particularly someone outside of Fiji looking to profit – to effectively claim ownership of ‘bula’, a word so deeply-rooted in our national identity that it has become synonymous with Fiji,” Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told Radio New Zealand.

“The idea that a single person could control the use of a word so dear to the hearts of Fijians is offensive, it is tone-deaf, and it is wrong,” he said, adding that the government would “fight this trademark with every power international law affords”.

The traditional Fijian greeting, which is pronounced “boolah” literally means ‘life’, but is commonly used as greeting similar to “hello” as a way of wishing a person a good life. If uttered twice, it means ‘health’.

As part of its tourism drive, the island uses the phrase ‘Bula Spirit’ as a marketing slogan.

Bula Nation’s owner Ross Kashtan, who last year succeeded in trademarking the name for use in the USA, has so far remained tight-lipped over the apparent controversy he has caused.

This is not the first time that a word or phrase from another language and culture has been successfully trademarked in the US.

A Chicago-based Hawaiian-themed restaurant sought to trademark the name ‘Aloha Poke’ as a brand – combining the Hawaiian words for hello and a popular island delicacy made from marinated fish.

However, the restaurant incurred the wrath of Hawaiians when it issued cease-and-desist letters to other restaurants including eateries in Hawaii itself. An outcry from islanders subsequently led to the Chicago restaurant issuing a public apology for the offence it had caused.

Luke Morgan, a Partner with Palmers who specialises in Intellectual Property law, said: “This case serves to highlight the importance of being culturally aware when choosing a name for a corporate brand, product or service.

“It could be argued that the publicity generated from this particular dispute has, in fact, put the Floridian restaurant chain on the map and, being thousands of miles from Fiji, the owner is unlikely to be overly concerned about alienating potential Fijian customers.

“Nevertheless, it is worth considering the full implications before using a word which has cultural sensitivities.”

For help and advice on all aspects of Intellectual Property law, please contact us.