As the result of an FOIA request, the Office of Foreign Asset Controls (“OFAC”) released a pile of requests by U.S. citizens to import all kinds of things from North Korea, including beer, printer cartridges, children’s shoes, blue jeans (!!), columbite, and collectible postage stamps. You can’t help but being intrigued by the concept of importing blue jeans from Pyongyang, that international capital of haute couture best exemplified by the pudgy fashion plate who is the titular ruler of the country.
But more entertaining than picturing what exactly Nork jeans would look like is a singularly clueless article on the license requests that ran on the aptly named website TechDirt, which apparently dispenses its “dirt” on the tech scene without actually knowing anything or doing any research. The author of the TechDirt post, one Mike Masnick, is all befuddled over requests by several law firms for permission to take steps to register trademarks in North Korea. Masnick sees these requests as just an example of law firms trying to gouge their clients for performing pointless services.
Case in point, he says, was the request by the lawyers by Intel to register its trademarks in North Korea
[W]hy does Intel care about protecting its trademarks in North Korea when it can’t sell its chips into North Korea in the first place?
Hello, Mike, does Google still work on your computer? Obviously not, or you would have easily found this. Exports to North Korea aren’t banned but merely require licenses from the Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”). In the case of consumer grade computer chips, license requests are considered on a case-by-case basis. Also, Intel products with less than 10 percent U.S.-origin content could be sold in North Korea without licenses under BIS’s de minimis rules. But, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Intel couldn’t sell anything at all in North Korea, it still might want trademark protection there to prevent other people from outside the United States from selling products in North Korea under that name.
As a bit of background, the real reason for the requests by law firms to help register trademarks in North Korea stems from a curious inconsistency in OFAC’s sanctions regulations. In most if not all of the other sanctions regimes, including those for Cuba and Iran, there are specific provisions permitting registration and protection of trademarks in the sanctioned countries. For reasons that are not clear, the North Korea regulations do not include this exception, hence the request. Whether OFAC granted these requests or not is not revealed by the FOIA documents but I’m fairly certain that the requests would have been granted.