Every year on 7 July World Chocolate Day celebrates the first time chocolate arrived in Europe back in 1550. Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, was originally native to the Amazon and was unknown to the Spanish when they first arrived in the Americas. The story goes that explorers had their first taste of chocolate in the year 1519 when the Aztecs served it to them in the form of a drink. They took this beverage back to Spain with them and added sugar and milk, essentially creating what we know today as hot chocolate. Now, over 500 years later, chocolate has become one of the most loved confections in the world.

The exchange of knowledge between cultures has always been vital, and it remains important to respect traditional knowledge like that used by the Aztecs to grow cocoa beans successfully - without it, we might not have all the treasures available to us today. In a way, traditional knowledge handed down from generation to generation is like open-source innovation, impossible to protect using conventional intellectual property systems: it is something which belongs to all of us, a kind of prior art. On the other hand, innovations that are based on traditional knowledge can indeed benefit from IP rights like patents, utility models or even geographical indications. 

Cocoa Patenticulars keyvisual

As an example, the Chuao plantation located in the north of Venezuela has the perfect climate for growing a special type of cocoa called criollo (pictured above). Not only is the plantation in the perfect location, it is also managed by an indigenous community with years of cocoa-growing experience that has devised innovative ways of growing the bean. In full recognition of this, an appellation of origin (AO) was filed and granted back in 2000. The AO protects the Chuao name and restricts the use of this name for similar products in other locations. This has proven to be a powerful marketing tool as people now recognise the brand and associate it with a high quality cocoa.

Appellations of origin are a special type of geographical indication (GI). GIs are a form of IP protection provided to products from certain parts of the world and are enforced by the countries they are filed in. They differ from patents in that they protect the name of a product (like cheese or wine) rather than a new or novel production method, and they are not owned by an individual. In fact, the Chuao plantation would not be able to get a patent for the way they grow cocoa beans because the traditional knowledge they use has technically already been part of the state of the art for a long time. Historically, it has always been difficult to identify traditional knowledge as prior art in patent applications. This is why countries like India, China and Brazil have created traditional knowledge databases which patent examiners often rely on to ensure that the patents they grant are not already part of traditional knowledge and hence part of the prior art.

The modern chocolate industry benefits from other types of IP rights, not just GIs. For example, many brands of chocolate are trademarked, and you can also protect chocolate recipes as trade secrets. Finally, also patent protection plays an important role. Many cocoa-related inventions fall under the IPC or CPC main group A23G1 (Espacenet) -"Cocoa; Cocoa products, e.g. chocolate; Substitutes therefor". A quick Espacenet search on CPC group A23G1 returns over 8 800 results, and a search on documents assigned to IPC main group A23G1 or below returns over 15 000 patent families.

So there you have it. A sweet journey from traditional methods to the modern chocolate industry. Time now for a bar of chocolate and to think about all the different IP rights you may be holding right there in your hand ...

Through its environmental policy, the Office is committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Respecting traditional knowledge and indigenous communities is a key element of reducing inequalities and therefore contributes to UN SDG 10.

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