If you've had Indonesian chicken noodle soup or porridge from street vendors, you've probably eaten them from white bowls with a painting of a black-red rooster. These rooster-illustrated bowls are synonymous with street culinary across the country. The image is so iconic and widespread—it's one of those things everyone has a collective ownership over, or so I thought.
I was enjoying a bowl of meatballs near the VICE Indonesia office in South Jakarta, which were served in—you guessed it—in a white, rooster-illustrated bowl. Then a friend sent a picture of a newspaper announcement from PT. Lucky Indah Keramik saying that it has claimed the rights to the iconic image. The company was formed in 1972 and has two factories in Tangerang and Depok. In the announcement, the company said that anyone who produces, uses, or trades the rooster image will spend time up to five years behind the bars or fined for Rp2 billion ($15,100 USD) according to copyright laws.
I don't remember the first time I saw the rooster bowl. Unfortunately, there's not much historical evidence that can help me on this front either. However, it's reported that the bowls can be found in all areas across Indonesia. Words on the street is that the bowls came from China and can be found easily in Southeast Asia.
"I inherited these bowls from my late Father," said Urip Siswasto, a meatball street vendor in Santa Area in South Jakarta. "My Dad had been selling meatballs since 1963, and I took over the business in 2009."
Urip isn't sure when his late father bought the rooster bowls. He didn't even know that the rooster illustration on his bowls are now copyrighted. "I don't know anything that. I got some of these bowls as gifts for purchasing seasoning flavors," said Urip.
Urip remembered that in 1990s, many seasoning flavor brands offered the bowls as incentives to buy their products. A PT. Lucky Indah Keramik representative, Ronald Nainggolan, told VICE Indonesia that the company has been distributing the rooster bowls since the 1970s. He refused to comment further.
Now that the iconic bowls are copyrighted, how will it affect us? I tried to find out by making the rounds at traditional markets in South Jakarta. It was pretty easy to find sellers of these rooster bowls. Unfortunately, most of the goods sold in the market were counterfeits from China, marked by the Lucky Fine China logo.
A glassware seller in Kebayoran Baru selling these Chinese rooster bowls heard about the rights claimed over the bowls, but was unfazed by it.
"The authentic ones cost almost twice as much. The counterfeit ones only cost you Rp84,000 ($6.36 USD) per dozen. From what I know, it's easier to find counterfeits on the market. I don't even know the difference. Perhaps the authentic ones are made from better material? Mostly, it's housewives that are looking with the counterfeits," said the seller who asked us to hide his name.
If look at rooster bowls from different suppliers, it's hard to spot many obvious differences. However, if you look closer, you can see differences in details of the flower and the leaves. Even the roosters look different, as if they weren't drawn by the same person.
Intellectual property rights are still the source of all sorts of polemics in Indonesia. Last June, the Japanese sneakers company Asics Corp who is responsible for brand Onitsuka Tiger lost in Indonesian court and have to accept the fact that their brand is now officially owned by two Indonesian businessmen. Of course it wasn't just Asics, as IKEA, Pierre Cardin, Polo and even Toyota went through a similar fate.
"The rooster illustration polemics are not only taking place in Indonesia, but many other countries," said Nurul Taufiqu Rohman, a researcher at the Indonesia Institute of Sciences. "Since the image is everywhere, we didn't even realize we could patent it."
Nurul said that as long as the property hasn't been claimed by anyone, then everyone has the same chance to patent it. It's only a matter of who lists the property to Indonesia's Department of Intellectual Property first. It's that simple—and that messed up. When a company files to patent a property, said Nurul, the claim will be investigated. The applicant needs to be able to provide evidence that they are in fact the one who created the illustration. If no one feels aggrieved or protests the claim, then a patent right might be granted.
It's frustrating, but I'm not surprised in the slightest, considering Indonesia is a country known for piracy. The Department of Intellectual Property recorded a loss of Rp65.1 trillion ($4.6 million USD) to piracy between 2014 and 2016 alone.
A national culinary expert, Rahung Nasution, is baffled by patent claim over rooster bowls. He said the image has become a part of our tradition. "The illustration is like a national heritage at this point," said Rahung. "Nobody questions it because it has become a part of our culinary culture. Does one patent a traditional toy, like the spinning top? It's funny that someone suddenly claims these bowls."
For most of us, your meatballs, chicken noodle soup or porridge will still taste the same, regardless whether the rooster bowl is a counterfeit or not.