There’s been a lot of “he said, she said” going on between Starbucks and representatives of the Ethiopian coffee trade lately. Ethiopian Sidamo and Harar (two generally excellent bean stocks, mind you) were up for trademark protection when a “certain voting member” of the U.S. National Coffee Association (or NCA, a business interest legacy of coffee’s darker ages) effectively blocked passage at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Passage of the trademark requests would have enabled Ethiopian coffee farmers to secure more of their coffee’s retail price plus access to additional demand of some 48 million pounds of the stuff. Fingers started pointing, beginning with U.K.-based, anti-poverty charity, Oxfam — who singled out Starbucks as instigating the NCA block. Oxfam called Starbucks “corporate bullies”. Starbucks responded with denial, saying that they had nothing to do with the block vote.

I’ve refrained from posting any articles on the issue until the dust settled a bit, and today the online site for the German magazine, Der Spiegel, seems to have done the best job yet of explaining the intricate problems and tradeoffs behind this showdown: A Hot Cup of Money: Starbucks, Ethiopia, and the Coffee Branding Wars – International – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News.

UPDATE: November 28, 2006:
And if you thought it couldn’t get uglier: Ethiopian coffee trademark dispute may leave Starbucks with nasty taste – Markets – Times Online.

UPDATE: February 23, 2007:
In today’s The Voice (London), lawyers representing the Ethiopian government finally went on the offensive: STARBUCKS ACCUSED OF MISLEADING THE PUBLIC OVER TRADEMARK ROW. This after Starbucks recent public (mis?)information campaign, which used everything from New York Times full page ads to videos published on YouTube to discredit the Ethopian growers’ case as ‘illegal’.

UPDATE: March 3, 2007:
The Legal Times offered a more detailed technical view of the dispute: – Ethiopian Coffee Dispute Runs Hot and Cold.

UPDATE: June 22, 2007:
On Wednesday, Starbucks and Ethiopian coffee reps came to something of a truce/agreement over the issue: Starbucks, Ethiopia reach licensing deal.