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Rule of lawyers

11/07/2017

Back in 1970 a new supermarket chain was launched in Britain. It seems the founder was a personal friend of a former Icelandic prime minister, and it occurred to him that Iceland would be a clever name for his new business, since it specialised in frozen food. The fact that it was also the name of a country (in English, though not in any other language) was an added benefit, and did not appear to bother the authorities in Reykjavík – at least, not then.

But times have changed. We now live in an age when economic interests predominate over all others. Businesses and other organisations go out of their way to defend their commercial or other rights against whatever they consider infringements, however minor; and their weapons of choice are lawyers. But in this case it is not, as you might think, the Icelandic authorities that have taken the supermarket chain to court – it’s the other way round. Incredibly, the company has managed to secure a Europe-wide patent on the name ‘Iceland’, and is now suing Icelandic businesses that trade abroad and use the name of their country in their marketing for trademark infringement.

The absurdity of this is mind-boggling. For one thing, there has always been a principle in patent law that everyday words and names can’t be patented, as this would prevent people from using their own native languages freely. You’d expect this principle to apply automatically to names of countries; but somehow the supermarket chain persuaded the European patent agency to rule otherwise, and now the Icelandic government is trying to get the patent invalidated on the all too reasonable grounds that it makes it difficult for Icelandic companies to do business. It makes particular sense for them to use English names, because (1) Icelandic names are difficult to pronounce and understand in other languages (to take just one example, the national airline Icelandair is the result of a merger between two companies called Flugfélag Íslands and Loftleiðir), and (2) the name of the country in Icelandic (Ísland) would clearly be confusing, at least in English (of course, it is an island, but that’s not the point).

No-one is trying to stop the British company from operating under the name Iceland; but the company is trying to stop anyone else from doing so. Perhaps Iceland the country could have saved itself a lot of bother by taking Iceland the company to court back in 1970 for misusing the name – but in those days most people’s minds just didn’t work that way. They still relied on a basic sense of decency and common sense.

Next thing you know, the UK poulterers’ association will manage to get the name ‘Turkey’ patented, and Turkish businesses will find themselves in a similar predicament. Porcelain manufacturers and China? Hat-makers and Panama? Spice-growers and Chile? And on and on.

There is – or was? – a Dutch band called Dow Jones, named after the American stock exchange index. Some months ago I read in a local newspaper that they had received a letter from lawyers in New York enjoining them to change their name forthwith or face legal proceedings. You wonder how the use of the name by a little-known group of musicians in Europe could possibly harm the American company (if anything, you might consider it free advertising, for which anyone should be grateful); and you can only suspect that lawyers scented a chance to get rich.

Unlike some company names, however, Dow Jones has not become ‘generic’, i.e. the everyday word for the product concerned, irrespective of brand. The classic case is the American vacuum-cleaner manufacturer Hoover, whose name became synonymous in British English with vacuum cleaners generally and the whole act of vacuum-cleaning or anything resembling it (‘I’ll hoover the carpet’, ‘he just hoovers up his food’). Companies eventually risk losing their trademark protection because their brand name has become ‘generic’ in this way. Examples include ‘zipper’, ‘velcro’, ‘aspirin’, ‘kleenex’, ‘frisbee’ and ‘videotape’.

But back to geography. When Yugoslavia finally disintegrated into its six constituent republics, all but one had names that preceded the establishment of the unified state: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Montenegro (a literal Italian translation of the original Slavic name Crna Gora, meaning ‘Black Mountain’). But the sixth republic did not. Its name was Macedonia.

However, simply calling it this is enough to raise national and political hackles – above all in neighbouring Greece, where most people still insist on calling the country Σκόπια (‘Skópia’), after its capital city Skopje. The official Greek stance on the matter is that Macedonia has ‘no right’ to use that name, for it is already the name of a Greek province: Μακεδονία (‘Makedonía’).

To most people outside Greece, the Greek arguments seem specious; for there are quite a few examples in the world of countries (or regions) that have the same name as a region in another country, and no-one seems bothered by the fact. Belgium’s south-eastern province is called Luxembourg; one of the three divisions (‘parts’) of the English county of Lincolnshire was called Holland (until it was abolished in a local government reorganisation in 1974); both Austria and Slovenia have provinces known in English as Styria; both Belgium and Holland have provinces called Limburg and Brabant, though the Belgian one has since been divided into Dutch- and French-speaking sections known as Vlaams Brabant (‘Flemish Brabant’) and Brabant Wallon (‘Walloon Brabant’), and the Dutch one is officially called Noord-Brabant (‘North Brabant’) to distinguish it from its southern neighbours in Belgium, with which it was once united); there is a Mexican peninsula called Baja California (‘Lower California’), and one US state is called New Mexico; both Peru and Argentina have provinces named after the Spanish region of Rioja; and so on.

So by what right does Greece lay exclusive claim to the name ‘Macedonia’? The answer, if it can be called one, is Alexander the Great. Although the evidence is less than abundant, it seems the language spoken in the ancient kingdom of Macedon (or Macedonia) was related to Greek; and King Alexander’s vast empire, which at its height extended as far as the River Indus in modern Pakistan and as far down the River Nile as Thebes (the site of modern-day Luxor), was essentially Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic. This was also the high point of Greek history; although such city-states as Athens and Sparta were to exert great influence, the Greek-speaking world would never again be as unified as it was under Alexander (the later Byzantine empire’s eastern borders extended no further than modern Syria and Jordan, and it only briefly held Italy and small parts of North-west Africa and Spain).

Since Greek influence has steadily declined since ancient times, and the whole country was occupied and oppressed by Ottoman Turkey for four centuries after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople, it is perhaps not surprising that many Greeks look back to Alexander’s Macedonian empire as a lost ‘golden age’ of Hellenism.

But how did one of the six former Yugoslav republics come to be known as Macedonia? Here the answer is Marshal Tito. Being of half-Croat and half-Slovene descent, he was well aware that Serb nationalism and expansionism had always been the bane of Yugoslav politics, and was determined to clip Serbia’s wings, however gently. Part of this involved turning Serbia’s territorial gains along Greece’s northern border (hitherto referred to as ‘Southern Serbia’) into a separate new republic; the local population spoke a language far more closely related to neighbouring Bulgarian than to Serbian and Croatian, and this seemed to justify a new identity. But Tito would surely have saved everyone a great deal of trouble after his death if he had not decided that the new republic should be called Macedonia.

As long as Yugoslavia remained a unified state, there was no real problem; but all that changed when the country broke apart and, one after the other, its constituent republics declared themselves independent. When Macedonia voted for independence under this name in September 1991, Greece promptly denied its right to use it, on the grounds that the name was ‘exclusively Greek’. Non-Greeks who disputed this interpretation were told to ‘read history’ – whereas in fact the historical facts are, to say the least, ambiguous. And since, for good or ill, the inhabitants of present-day Macedonia choose to call themselves ‘Macedonians’ and their language ‘Macedonian’ – as they do – who are the Greeks to say them nay?

But of course matters are not quite as clear-cut as all this. One of the firmer parts of Greece’s argument against allowing its neighbours to use the name is indeed based on history – but far more recent history than many Greeks would like to believe. Alexander the Great’s empire has little to do with the case. Once again, we are talking about 19th- and 20th century Serb nationalism and expansionism.

As the first south-east European state to gain independence from Ottoman Turkey without immediately falling into the competing clutches of Austria’s Habsburg empire, Serbia had hopes of becoming a major regional power; but unlike all its neighbours it had the serious disadvantage of being landlocked. It was cut off by its geography from all three of the nearest seas (Black, Aegean and Adriatic); and its future prosperity would surely depend on having a major seaport through which to export its products. The obvious candidate was Salonica, known to the Greeks as Thessaloníki and to the Serbs and other Slavs as Solun.

Although Thessaloníki is now known far and wide as Greece’s second-largest city, all this was in fact a matter of chance. As in that other famous Mediterranean seaport Trieste, its  population had always been a colourful mixture: in this case Greek, Slav, Jewish and Turkish. And at the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913 the Greek army only beat its Bulgarian competitors to the city by a matter of hours. Both Greece and Bulgaria already had coasts and seaports of their own; but Serbia lost out in the race, and was instead forced to seek a new coast and seaports on the Adriatic, which involved absorbing Croatia and Slovenia under the cloak of a ‘united’ Yugoslavia.

Having annexed Thessaloníki by the very skin of its teeth, Greece was only too aware of its northern Slav neighbours’ designs on the Aegean coast; and when Macedonia declared itself independent, Greece eagerly sought evidence that the old Slav ambitions of an outlet to the Mediterranean were still very much alive. Unfortunately, Macedonia did not take long to provide precisely that explosive evidence.

Its flag is to this day based on a historical symbol that the Greeks see as their own: the ‘sun’ of Vergina. There are so many other flag designs it could have chosen – but it chose what was surely the most provocative of all the conceivable alternatives. A nationalist organisation in Macedonia then printed unofficial banknotes that showed the iconic ‘White Tower’ in Thessaloníki. The Macedonian government printed its own far more neutral banknotes; but the fact that it had allowed the other notes to circulate in the first place, rather than prosecute the counterfeiters, was of course grist to Greece’s nationalist mill, as supposed proof that, deep down, its northern neighbour sought access to Greek territory on the Aegean coast.

Finally, and worst of all, in 2006 the Macedonian government decided to rename its own international airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great – a politically inept act that could not have been better calculated to inflame passions at a time when Macedonia was seeking greater international recognition. There’s no reason to name airports after people at all – and why, of all people, someone as divisive as Alexander the Great?

Then again, why did Greece have to rise to the bait – as it predictably did?

Perhaps here we’re no longer talking about lawyers. But I still bet they’re doing damn well out of all this acrimony; for all too often it’s their stock-in-trade.

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