J'ouvert Trademark Controversy
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
What is J’ouvert?
The term originates from the French words “jour ouvert” which means morning or day break; traditionally, it has been used in Trinidad to signal the start of Carnival via a pre-dawn Monday event.
For background, Christopher Columbus landed in Trinidad in 1498 and took possession for Spain. In 1776, the Spanish King allowed the French to populate the islands and they brought many cultural traditions, customs, and language.
History of Trinidad Carnival
In 1797, the British took control of Trinidad & Tobago. As with the French, traditions and customs of the colonizers expanded across the country. Many of these events were described as fetes and balls.
Prior to the emancipation of enslaved, the white upper-class costumes were of “Negues Jadin (Negres Jardin - French for Garden Negroes) and mulatresses. They also reenacted the Cannes Brulées (French for Burning Canes): the practice of rounding up [the enslaved] to put out fires in the cane field.”
Carnival is held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Carnival has its roots in the French Catholic ritual of Shrovetide (where Hedonism was celebrated prior to Lent) and West African culture. It was initially only for upper class whites. It wasn’t until emancipation that Africans, and later Indians, took Carnival and made it their own.
What’s going on now?
On September 25, 2020, an applicant, connected with Michael B. Jordan and a rum company, submitted an application to trademark “J’ouvert” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). Jordan is an actor and has been seen in movies like Black Panther and Creed.
A trademark is defined by the USPTO as “a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination thereof that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods of one party from those of others.” The mark can be any one, or all of these, listed items.
On April 6, 2021, the mark was published in the Official Gazette as notice to anyone seeking to oppose. The opposition deadline passed and on June 1, 2021, the USPTO issued a Notice of Allowance. That means that the applicant has 6 months to file a statement of use showing that they are currently using the mark in commerce.
However, Michael B. Jordan received much backlash for being associated with a company that attempted to trademark “J’ouvert.” Most were outraged that someone outside of the Caribbean (or not a Caribbean descendant) attempted to trademark a phrase that is so closely associated with Trinidad and the greater Caribbean region. The West Indies already suffered much damage from colonization, slavery, and indentured servitude. The outrage revolved around the concern that foreign interests were once again trying to profit from the region and marginalize the population.
Some thought that trademarking the phrase would prevent anyone except the owner from using it. This is not true. A trademark registration is only valid in the country that issued the registration or a party to subject treaties. A trademark also only covers specific “international classes” or categories. This particular application was for alcoholic beverages. It would not prevent commercial uses unrelated to alcoholic beverages.
Michael B. Jordan publicly issued an apology and agreed to rename his product. As of the writing of this article, the application was still pending. The application will be deemed “dead” if the applicant fails to file a Statement of Use within the required timeframe.
More about Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of two islands located in the Caribbean Sea, just north of Guyana. The Amerindians, Spanish, Africans, French, British, and Indians all had a significant impact on the islands.
In the beginning, the the islands were mainly inhabited by the Arawak and Carib Amerindians. The former was a more peaceful tribe and the latter was known for their willingness to war. There is dispute as to the Amerindians’ original name for the island but Christopher Columbus renamed the island "La Isla de la Trinidad" in 1498. Tobago was also supposedly called “Tobaco” and its named signified the importance of tobacco to the natives. European language corruption caused the name change on both islands.
The islands were taken by Spain following Columbus' discovery. Spain spent many years at war trying to conquer the natives and convert them to Catholicism. In 1699, Spain’s continued forceful conversion caused a violent uprising that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Amerindians, members of the Church, and members of the local government. After this, the tension between the two groups was generally settled for the next hundred years.
Spain then enslaved Africans to work on the plantations. At one point, the enslaved Africans outnumbered the plantation owners and free workers. The Africans did their best to preserve their African traditions despite severe oppression, and despite being thousands of miles away from home. This perseverance would eventually spawn the gift of Trinidad Carnival-- a celebration that many around the world look forward to annually.
In 1777, Spain offered free land to those willing to pledge allegiance to the King in order to populate the islands. Many French planters during the French Revolution took advantage of the land proposal. The mass French exodus to Trinidad had a greater cultural impact on Trinidad compared to the minimal impact of the Spanish.
In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and Spain surrendered without a fight. Britain began importing Indian indentured servants on May 1, 1845, with the first ship being the Fatel-Razak. The indentureship period lasted from 1845 to 1917 and involved approximately 147,000 Indians working on sugarcane and cocoa plantations. Many of these Indians would remain in Trinidad and form the majority of the country’s population.
Petroleum became Trinidad’s main export in the 1950s. The early oil discoveries and production were spearheaded and controlled by American companies and American businessmen. Thus, Trinidad and Tobago’s proximity to Guyana should raise caution concerning outside influence in Trinidad’s politics, and a power struggle to control potential oil profits from future discoveries.
In 1962, Trinidad & Tobago gained independence from Britain. Eric Williams, who was of African descent, served as the first prime minister until his death in 1981. He is often regarded as the “Father of the Nation.”
This briefing on Trinidad and Tobago is derived mainly from Eric Williams’ insightful “History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago” and Bridget Brereton’s “An Introduction to the History of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a trademark and business attorney. She writes weekly articles on West Indian history and politics to raise awareness of the past, and educate the Caribbean diaspora on the need for legal contracts and trademarks.
She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History that focused on the slavery and indentured servitude eras, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree.
MDGR Law, P.A.