Umami mania: Can an esoteric Japanese phrase be trademarked?

August 23, 2013

Umami to meUmami is a Japanese phrase that does not quite survive the turbulent translation to English. People who have dead hearts and no sense of the romantic and intangible, though, say it can roughly be understood to mean “richness” or “savoriness.”

Gourmets (I refuse to call them “foodies”) consider it a fifth taste, along with saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and sourness.

What umami is not, however, is something that can be trademarked.

At least, that seems to be the way the judge who is overseeing a trademark dispute between a California burger joint and a Texas pizzeria seems to be thinking.

Earlier this summer, Umami Burger, which has several locations across The Golden State, sued Umami Mia Pizzeria in Austin.

In its suit, it claimed that umami was its term and that customers would be duped into thinking Umami Burger and Umami Mia were affiliated somehow.

It also claimed that burgers were more likely than pizzas to use umami ingredients.

This week, the judge overseeing the lawsuit refused to grant a preliminary injunction, saying that pizza ingredients were as likely as burger ingredients to have umami, and that “umami” was “a common word that cannot be monopolized.”

That last part is what interested me. I do not know how often umami is used in Japanese, but it is fair to say its use is not that widespread in English. Or, at least, is not as widespread as other common food and flavor terms that I would agree cannot be trademarked, like “delicious” or “flavorful.”

Whether the decision against granting a preliminary injunction says more about trademark law or the popularity of the term “umami” isn’t quite clear, since this is only a preliminary injunction, but I do think the final decision might cast some interesting light on legal recognition of trademark protection for foreign and esoteric phrases.