- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

HAVANA — Lengthy legal wrangling between the U.S. and Cuba over a rum-trademark issue may be near the end game, but the Communist island is threatening to escalate the dispute.

Time and again, U.S. courts have ruled against Cuba in its fight to control the U.S. rights to the trademark Havana Club, the island’s flagship rum brand which is sold in more than 120 countries around the world - but not in the U.S.

By mid-June, Cuba could lose all chance of pressing its legal claims against Bacardi, which distributes a limited quantity of its own Havana Club rum in Florida and says it plans to expand to other states in the near future.

Indignant over what it considers wholesale piracy of a national icon, Cuba accuses the U.S. of using an under-the-radar maneuver to block it from paying the small patent renewal fee, and it has raised its concerns at increasingly high levels of government. If the patent expires, Cuba says it could retaliate toward U.S. trademarks currently protected on the island.

“The United States’ disrespectful attitude in divesting the legitimate Cuban owners of the Havana Club brand can put at risk the brand and patent rights of American companies in our country,” Maria de los Angeles Sanchez, director of Cuba’s office of intellectual property, said Tuesday. “Cuba reserves the right as a sovereign nation to act at the appropriate moment.”

Such retaliation might have limited immediate impact, as most U.S. goods are barred from being sold to the island under the 50-year-old U.S. embargo. However there are some legal sales of food items, and companies also could face tough and costly legal battles to win back their trademark rights in a post-embargo Cuba.

Although the sanctions prevent Cuba from marketing Havana Club in the U.S., the island has held the trademark there since 1976 after the Cuban family that originally owned the brand let their registration lapse.

But since it came time to renew in 2006, Cuba says it has been unable to do so because the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo against the island, has not issued a license for Havana to make the $200 renewal payment.

Cuba sued the U.S. government, but lost. And when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the ruling May 14, a 30-day countdown began after which the patent office can cancel the trademark.

Thus, as soon as June 13, Cuba’s claim to the name could expire, and with it the island’s best hope of continuing its legal battle.

Pernod Ricard, which partners with Cuba to distribute Havana Club worldwide, has not yet sent notification to the Patent and Trade Office, and it vows the battle isn’t over.

“We are currently studying possible legal actions and studying the decision,” Olivia Lagache, general counsel for Havana Club, said by phone from Paris. “We will still fight to keep this trademark alive.”

But the French spirits maker is also putting contingency plans into action. After the Supreme Court ruling, Pernod Ricard announced that it had registered the brand name Havanista in the U.S. to sell rum there whenever the embargo is lifted.

It’s an extremely lucrative market and home to some 40 percent of the world’s rum drinkers, who likely would jump at the chance to sip the light, dry rum, distilled through a process of charcoal filtering and oak-barrel aging to give it extra sweetness.

Havana Club offers a range of rums that go from just a few dollars to the ultra-high-end Maximo Extra Anejo, which retails for more than $1,200 a bottle.

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