Washington Apple Commission President Dave Carlson wears the Washington apple logo in blue.
Imitation is a form of flattery, they say, but the Washington Apple Commission doesn’t see it that way.
Though the commission is no longer promoting Washington apples on the scale that it used to, it is still strongly protecting the famous Washington apple logo from wannabes and imposters.
The commission has been in the business of promoting Washington apples since 1937. Its logo has been updated over the years, with the current design being unveiled in 1982. The logo, which is generally red with the blue, underlined "Washington" through the middle, is registered in 64 countries.
Four years ago, as a result of a court ruling, the commission was forced to downsize and stop promoting apples in the domestic market. However, it retained a number of functions, the first of which was to promote Washington apples in export markets, using grower dollars to leverage federal Market Access Program funds.
Its second role was to protect the intellectual property, including the logo and promotional phrases such as "The best apples on earth," "The original health food," or "The world’s finest apples."
During its 70 years in business, the commission has spent more than $500 million of industry monies promoting Washington apples. The Washington apple logo is universally recognized.
Since the commission’s downsizing, Washington marketing companies have had to take over promotions and marketing activities on the domestic market, but they
still rely on the commission to do generic promotions overseas.
The Washington apple is perceived as a premium apple, and some foreign producers have used counterfeit Washington apple logos in an attempt to increase the value of their product. Commission President Dave Carlson figures that the Washington apple logo adds $1 to $3 in value to a box of apples.
"It’s one of the reasons the Chinese are trying to copy it so much," Carlson said. "They’re trying to replace us. Volume, they have, but quality and price-wise, they’re not even close."
Trademarks like the Washington logo must be maintained and protected by the owner, otherwise they become generic and can be used by anyone. But infringement of the logo is difficult to stop, partly because the Chinese government has not cooperated well in efforts to prevent such practices. Even Microsoft, with all its resources, struggles to prevent pirating of intellectual property in China. In fact, counterfeiting seems to be on the increase perhaps because of digital imaging, which has made it easier to reproduce designs, the commission reports.
Carlson said the commission has been spending about $200,000 a year, primarily on legal fees, to pursue companies that try to copy the logo. While it has been unable to prevent counterfeiting in China, it has had some success tackling Chinese forgeries in export markets.
In one case, a Chinese company was exporting apples to Indonesia that not only infringed the Washington apple logo but the TopRed label of Evans Fruit Company of Yakima. There were some minor differences between the counterfeit design and the genuine Evans fruit box, but the biggest giveaway is usually the carton itself, Carlson said. Most cartons from Washington are glued, whereas Chinese boxes are stapled together.
This forgery came to light when the Indonesian importer who had an exclusive marketing arrangement with Evans Fruit noticed apples in boxes with a TopRed label being sold down the street by another importer.
"He was rather upset, and it was also several dollars a box less money," Carlson related. "And if you looked at the fruit, it was obviously not the same quality fruit."
Typically, the commission hears about a suspected infringement from a traveling Washington fruit industry marketer or from one of its overseas representatives. Carlson then contacts the commission’s trademark attorney in Seattle, who has correspondent attorneys in other countries who initiate legal action. The commission’s representative might provide documentation, such as photographs. If the commission prevails, local authorities can seize the mislabeled fruit.
Counterfeit fruit is not confined to Asia. Carlson said the government of Dubai. which is a trading hub in the Middle East, has offered, for a $500 fee, to monitor infringements of the Washington logo when goods go through customs, instead of having cases tie up its legal system. "They have a good system for looking for contraband," he said.
The commission also pursues cases where companies don’t attempt to forge the logo, but do use the same apple design imposed with their own names. This has happened in numerous cases in places such as Australia, Mexico, and Canada. The commission considers it an infringement if the design features an apple with a leaf and words on a banner running through the middle of the apple.
The Canadian produce wholesaler Sami Fruits had such a logo. "That one, we just got resolved," Carlson said. "It was a fairly equitable situation because the court system was fair."
But in Mexico, it’s been a different story. A logo used by a group of growers in Chihuahua featured a red apple and leaf and their name on a banner through the middle. The commission has been pursuing the case since 1999. The commission won the case at a lower court, but the Mexican growers won on appeal and decided to register their design, which Carlson says is a replica of the Washington logo, apart from the name. The Apple Commission appealed that, and the court of appeals remanded the case back to the lower court. So far, the commission has spent about $200,000 in legal fees in the ongoing case.
Some cases have been closer to home. For example, a Kansas school district used a similar logo on shirts. That was resolved amicably when the commission licensed the design to the district.
A case involving Get Fit Foods, a merchandising company based in Wenatchee, was resolved out of court when the company changed its design.
When Stemilt Growers, Inc., test marketed its fresh sliced apples, the package had an apple design with a banner and Stemilt’s name through it. The company altered its design before the full launch of the product.
Recently, the City of Wenatchee selected a design for its welcome signs that the commission thought too closely resembled the Washington apple logo. Carlson proposed that the commission take ownership of the design and license it back to the City of Wenatchee at no charge.