Hawaii Eyes Keeping ‘Aloha’ From Trademarking Hands

(CN) – Who owns Aloha? The Hawaii Legislature hopes to settle this question over the next three years with the help of a task force formed by the passage of a resolution Wednesday.

The word “aloha” has long been synonymous with Hawaii as a greeting and a goodbye, but it also defines a way of treating others with kindness and love. It surprised many, then, when in 2018 a Chicago company trademarked the name “Aloha Poke” and attempted to stop Native Hawaiian restaurateurs in Alaska and Hawaii from using the name for their businesses.

Tasha Kahele, the Alaska business owner, decided not to fight and spent thousands to change the name of her shop after receiving a cease-and-desist letter. Kahele said she was devastated but couldn’t afford the legal fees to fight it.

“This is not our first business, so I understand the copyright and the trademark, which is why we are so torn,” Kahele said in an Alaska Public Media interview. “We knew that we’d have to comply, but this is kind of different. It was a word that they should never have been able to trademark or copyright, especially those two words together.”

In Honolulu, Aloha Poke Shop co-founder Jeff Sampson got his attorney involved, informing the Chicago company he wouldn’t change his restaurant name given the location of the Chicago stores on the United States mainland and his location in the islands.

Hawaii lawmakers also stepped into the fray with HI SCR2014, a joint resolution first approved on the House side of Hawaii’s Legislature on April 22. While the plans for an intellectual property task force were already been in the works prior to the Aloha Poke trademark dispute, the dispute gave the issue the boost it needed to pass both chambers.

The enacted resolution reads in part: “Whereas, disputes between indigenous peoples and third-party users of indigenous knowledge resources over ownership and control have steadily increased in the last five years; whereas, a non-Hawaiian food chain that originated in Chicago, Aloha Poke Co., issued cease-and-desist letters threatening small poke food businesses in Hawaii and across the nation from using the words “Aloha” and “Poke”, in essence claiming ownership of these cultural expressions….”

The resolution acknowledges the western intellectual property system was developed to protect the rights of creators and inventors against plagiarism and to reward and encourage new inventions, not to protect the rights of indigenous peoples to their collective, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and art forms.

“The laws of the state of Hawaii recognize the traditional customary rights of Native Hawaiians but do not expressly recognize and protect the collective intellectual property rights of the Native Hawaiian peoples,” the resolution states.

Pointing to strategies undertaken by other indigenous people – including the federally funded U.S. Department of Interior Indian Arts and Crafts Board, registered trademarks by Maori artists in New Zealand and Alaska Native artists covering various tribes in that state – the resolution instructs a task force made up of state agencies and Native Hawaiian organizations to develop a legal system to “recognize and protect” Native Hawaiian cultural intellectual property, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.  

The task force must submit recommendations and any proposed legislation to lawmakers no later than 20 days prior to the 2022 regular legislative session.

“I know some people are like, ‘It is just a generic word, everyone says it,’” Kahele said in the interview with Alaska Public Media. “But not to our people, it’s not. Aloha encompasses everything. We live aloha, we give it, we share it. It’s not to be restricted and I think that’s why it’s so triggering to people and it’s so offensive and it’s so hurtful. It’s hurtful – for our family it’s hurtful.”

Chicago-based Aloha Poke Company has since apologized on its Facebook page but insists it still owns “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” when used by restaurants, caterers and take-out.

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