Many common words can attain trademark status if they acquire a secondary meaning denoting origin from a particular source. In South East Asian countries Kopitiam is a generic word meaning a Chinese coffee shop. It comes from the Peranakan Chinese overseas Chinese who migrated to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Its origins are the bahasa word for coffee, kopi and the Chinese hokkien word tiam, for shop or stall. They can be found across the region - see picture.
One Indonesian businessman, Abdul Soelystio owns a Jakarta-based “Kopitiam” shop and has sought to register the name as his own brand in 1996. He then filed a lawsuit against a Medan-based business called “Kok Tong Kopitiam” for trying to register a mark including kopitiam. He won in the Medan District Court. Paimin Halim, the owner of “Kok Tong Kopitiam”, appealed to the Supreme Court last year but lost. Now, Abdul Soelystio has taken out national advertisements to warn other restaurant owners to immediately drop kopitiam from their names.
There is even a Kopitiam Association and its chairman Mulyadi Praminta has said the court rulings are ridiculous. So has Bondan Winarno, the owner of the “Kopitiam Oey” chain. In Singapore, the name is generic.
The problem in this case stems from a problematic District Court decision in Medan; in Indonesia it is often hard to raise defences, because of a bifurcated system. The defendant needed to file a cancellation action to revoke the mark as generic. Maybe now other major business owners or the association should do so.