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Screenshot of Bula Nation’s website
Screenshot of Bula Nation’s website

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Can a national greeting be stolen?

The government of Fiji says it is contesting the trademark of the word “bula”, which was registered by an American company operating a chain of bars in Florida called Bula Nation.

“Bula” apparently means “life”, but is used as a greeting and good wishes, and is used only on the island of Fiji.

Calling it a case of “heritage-hijacking”, Fiji said it is preparing legal action against the owner of Bula Nation.

"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 said to Radio New Zealand.

Bula Nation’s owner, Ross Kashtan, has recently succeeded in trademarking “bula”. His bars serve kava, a traditional drink in the Southern Pacific Islands which come from the kava root. The drink is used for relaxation and to relieve pain. Ironically, the kava in the bars are sourced from Vanuatu, not Fiji.

Tarisi Vunidilo, a Fijian academic at the University of Hawaii, said that Kashtan “…has no relationship with Fiji whatsoever. Even on his website that he calls Bula Nation, he mentions there that even the kava is not sourced from Fiji. The kava is from Vanuatu. So why is he using 'Bula' for his Bula Nation? There's a lot of misrepresentation."

Is it important for the kava to be sourced from Fiji before the business is correct in representing its brand, and to benefit Fiji’s economy?

More importantly, should Fiji have trademarked their “bula” greeting first?

If it should have, will it spark a landgrab of trademarks, with other countries doing the same for their cultural markers?

Perhaps we could take in the intention behind Bula Nation’s trademarking of “bula”, which is to protect his brand name and to deter competition in his area. It is likely not in his business interest to deter Fijians from using their greeting, although the news has not gone down well with Fijians.

It is worth noting that the word “bula”, or combinations of words including “bula”, have been trademarked at least 43 times in the United States and in other countries. Should the Fiji government go after these other cultural offenders as well?

Now would be a good time for Creators to re-assess whether there is any intellectual property in their businesses that they have taken for granted, and should get round to protecting. The Fiji government is becoming a cautionary tale as it is likely to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to protect something that its people have taken for granted for years.

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Mark Laudi

Mark Laudi

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