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Cubatabaco, General Cigar to settle Cohiba case in court
CubaNews / November 2002

By Larry Luxner

Whose Cohiba is it anyway? That question will be answered in a New York courtroom sometime early next year, following a trademark infringement lawsuit brought by state-owned Empresa Cubana del Tabaco (Cubatabaco) against New York-based General Cigar Holdings Inc.

Nick Simeonidis, senior vice-president and general counsel for General Cigar, said the case was originally supposed to be heard last month, but it’s been delayed and now won’t come to trial until April 2003.

Both sides had moved for summary judgement since no material issues of fact were in dispute, but that motion was denied over the summer by Judge Robert Sweet of the Southern District of New York.

“In sum, we’re arguing that we own the trademark,” said Simeonidis in a recent phone interview. “Cubatabaco knew about this for years and years, and didn’t do anything about it until very late — too late in fact.”

The Cohiba brand, created in 1965 by Che Guevara, was the first cigar brand established by the Castro government following the 1959 revolution. It was conceived as a super-premium cigar for Castro’s private use, and to be given out to heads of state and other VIPs.

Thanks to their superior quality and relative scarcity, Cohibas quickly attained a cult status among cigar lovers and, by the early ‘70s, was on sale in some Cuban cigar shops. In 1982, Cuba began exporting Cohibas to Europe, where they were an instant hit.

General Cigar first registered the Cohiba name in the United States in 1978, and since the ‘80s has been making Cohibas at its huge factory in the Dominican Republic. In 1997, it introduced the famous “red dot” Cohiba.

“You can’t sell Cuban-made Cohibas [in the United States], but we’ve been selling Dominican Cohibas in the United States for quite some time,” Simeonidis told CubaNews. “Cohiba is now a very well-known brand for General Cigar, and it’s one of several very high-quality brands that we manufacture.”

In February 1997, Cuba attempted to cancel General’s trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but suspended that action when it sued Culbro Corp., the former parent of General Cigar, later that year, accusing that company of trademark infringement, false designation of source of origin and other allegations. In January 1998, the parties agreed to attempt to settle out of court.

Earlier this year, Judge Sweet found that General Cigar’s first registration of the Cohiba trademark had been abandoned in the 1980s, and that the case should be resolved on the basis of its second registration in 1992.

The judge also dismissed Cubatabaco’s claims of ownership to the trademark based upon two intellectual property treaties.

“Cubatabaco is trying to make the claim that somehow our registration should be cancelled,” said Simeonidis. “If that were the case, then no one would be able to sell a Cohiba in the U.S. But we don’t think that will happen. At trial, it’ll be proven that we were right in our claims.”

Miguel Angel Casas, president of ICT — a joint-venture cigar factory owned 50% by Cubatabaco and 50% by Madrid-based Altadis S.A. — says he wouldn’t count on that. “Cohiba is the indigenous Taino word for tobacco,” Casas told us. “We began producing Cohibas 37 years ago. Cuba initiated the lawsuit because this is theft of our trademark.”

Meanwhile, a federal court in Miami has dismissed an unrelated lawsuit by General Cigar against competitor Altadis and its U.S. affiliates, Altadis USA Inc. and Consolidated Cigar Holdings Inc.

In its lawsuit originally filed in November 2000, General Cigar had alleged that Altadis USA was forcing cigar wholesalers and retailers to buy its brands as a condition for future supplies of Cuban cigars once the U.S. em-bargo was lifted. It also claimed Altadis had violated U.S. antitrust and trademark laws.

But Judge Federico A. Moreno ruled that General Cigar had failed to make a case either for illegal monopolization or violation of antitrust laws. Moreno also dismissed claims that Altadis employees had made false statements about General Cigar products, and he threw out the latter company’s claims for actual, treble and punitive damages.

Simeonidis said his company is appealing Moreno’s ruling.

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