Watch your language – Te Reo Māori in Aotearaoa (New Zealand)

Watch your language – Te Reo Māori in Aotearaoa (New Zealand)

Watch your language – Te Reo Māori in Aotearaoa (New Zealand)

This week is Te Reo Māori week in Aotearoa (New Zealand), a week that promotes the use of Māori language. It is time where New Zealanders seek to expand upon their knowledge of Te Reo Maori, the Māori indigenous language of New Zealand (“Aotearoa” in Maori).

The use of Māori language in branding must be treated with respect. For brand owners, Māori language is more important than it may first appear. It is not uncommon for a brand owner to create what it considers to be an invented word only to find out that it is in fact Maori, or for a brand owner to misinterpret a Māori word – sometimes with unintended embarrassing consequences. Furthermore, in the Japanese language in particular, transliterations of numerous Japanese words are also, coincidentally, a Māori word.  

Can all Māori words be registered as trade marks?

In New Zealand, for the purposes of trademark registration, a Māori word is taken to mean the same as its English translation, irrespective of whether the trademark owner either knew or understood the Māori meaning of the word. So, if a transliteration of a Japanese trade mark happens to create a Māori word it may encounter an unexpected distinctiveness objection.

In White Cloud Dairy Innovation Limited [2017] [1], the applicant sought to register the word KURA for various classes 5, 29 and 30 goods including, flavourings for beverages, ice cream and frozen yoghurt. IPONZ refused registration of the mark as “Kura” is the Māori word for “red, scarlet” and is thus descriptive and non-distinctive. In such a case there is no room for argument regarding consumers’ knowledge of the Māori language nor whether the Māori word is less likely to be used for a particular product. As the Assistant Commissioner noted herself:

“I must assess the distinctiveness of the trade mark from the perspective of an ordinary person who is fluent in te reo Māori. Any other approach would not give proper recognition to the status of te reo Māori as an official language of New Zealand” [2].

It is worth noting that whenever registration is sought for trade and contains a Māori word or image, it should be referred to IPONZ’s Māori Advisory Committee, to determine whether or not the word or image is likely to be offensive to Maori. However, as noted below, it is not the Committee’s role to determine whether or not such a trade mark is otherwise registrable. In particular, the Committee will not obstruct registration of a trade mark such as KURA simply because “kura” is distinctive or descriptive. In that context, brand owners should not rely upon the Committee to determine whether or not a Māori word is appropriate or available use or register as a trade mark.

Be careful with use of te reo Māoriin branding 

It is more common for a brand owner to adopt a Māori word as a trade mark, knowing of its Māori origins and meaning. However, as with many languages, Māori words can have different meanings – particularly if a word is missing macrons which in Māori indicate how the word is to be spoken. Two recent cases helped to demonstrate these risks. Although the risks do not present a strong legal risk they certainly can present embarrassing commercial ones.

  1. Independently, two brand owners adopted the Māori word huruhuru as a trade mark – one as a brand for a range of Canadian beer, the other for a range of leather goods. In both cases the parties correctly identified that huruhuru can mean “feather”, which is why each of them adopted the trademark. However, it also has another meeting and one which, commercially, is not so helpful. Specifically, huruhuru also means “pubic hair” [3].
  2. Weta Workshop is a special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, producing effects for television and film – including Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Weta to many people is understood as the name of an insect native to New Zealand, hence the name. However, the correct word is actually wētā, with macrons over each vowel. So, what does “weta” mean? “Excrement”, or its more colloquial equivalent, which we need not repeat here. Once again, not really the brand a business would want to adopt and use! [4].

In these cases, the Māori Advisory Committee will not step in to advise the brand owner. As noted above their role is only to determine whether or not adoption and use of Māori word or image is likely to offend Māori or particular Māori iwi (tribe).

How do you stay safe with te reo Māori brands?

The Māori language te reo Māori is a beautiful one, and as such is being adopted more frequently by brand owners seeking to associate themselves with New Zealand.

The safest option whenever creating such a trade mark is always to check all words which could potentially be Māori with the Māori dictionary and a New Zealand IP specialist, to investigate further. As shown above a brand owner may adopt and even register its brand containing Māori words – only to find that, in the words of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Robert Plant’, “sometimes words have two meanings” [5] – one of which may be less complementary than the brand owner realises!

[1] White Cloud Dairy Innovation Limited [2017] (1) NZIPOTM 3 (13 January 2017)

[2], ibid, para 18.



[5] Stairway to Heaven, song by Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant

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