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Indonesian restaurateur's purchase of rights to 'kopitiam' sparks row

People from Sumatra, Singapore or Malaysia may raise their eyebrows after hearing that an Indonesian restaurateur has the intellectual rights to the word kopitiam.

Kopitiam, a generic word for a coffee stall, is a legacy of the Peranakan Cina, or Chinese who migrated to Malay-speaking lands.

In terms of gourmands, the word is a portmanteau of kopi, which means coffee in Malay, and tiam, which is Hokkien Chinese for shop or stall.

Older Peranakan Cina and those seeking inexpensive and hearty food have flocked to kopitiam in Malaysia and Singapore.

Kopitiam are wildly popular in several parts of Indonesia, as well, including North Sumatra, South Sumatra, West Sumatra, Riau Islands and some areas in Kalimantan.

In recent years, kopitiam have sprung up in big cities across the nation — such as Jakarta, Semarang, Central Java; and Surabaya, East Java — attracting customers from various backgrounds.

The capital's kopitiam owners association reported that there were 70 kopitiam stalls in Greater Jakarta and about 50 more throughout Indonesia, although traditional kopitiam are ubiquitous and likely to account for even more restaurants.

In 2010, Abdul Alek Soelystio, the owner of the Jakarta-based “Kopitiam”, filed a suit against Medan-based “Kok Tong Kopitiam” for using the word kopitiam, which Abdul said he registered as his intellectual property in 1996.

The Medan Administrative Court found in Abdul's favor. Paimin Halim, the owner of “Kok Tong Kopitiam,” appealed to the Supreme Court last year, only to have the lower court's decision upheld.

On Feb. 6, Abdul took out an ad in a national newspaper to warn other restaurant owners to immediately drop kopitiam from their brand identities.

Abdul's lawyers said that whoever used kopitiam could be charged with piracy.

The Intellectual Property Law provides for up to seven years' imprisonment for those convicted of intellectual privacy, although in practice violators are seldom sentenced to more than several months.

Kopitiam Association chairman Mulyadi Praminta described the rulings favoring Abdul as ridiculous.

“There was a similar case in Singapore. A company tried to copyright kopitiam to be its own, but Singapore's government rejected the request. It is shocking that we have a contradictory situation here,” he said.

Mulyadi said that the government should support the restaurant industry instead providing special treatment to particular parties.

“Local industry deserves support from the government. We hire many people, we use local products, including coffee beans,” he said.

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