Attempts by Ireland 30 years ago to register the harp as a state symbol under international trademark law ran into difficulties over fears it might impinge on the Guinness logo.
The office of the attorney general recommended registering the harp facing in both directions with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to give maximum protection from image theft.
But the government feared Guinness could challenge the decision as it had been using a “right-facing” harp symbol “some fifty years or more before the founding of the state”.
Concern over the issue had been heightened by a 1981 German court ruling which found the Irish Export Board could not stop foreign companies from using the shamrock on trademarked logos. The court noted that Ireland had failed to register it and other symbols with WIPO under the Paris convention for the protection of industrial property, something the government sought to address, state papers show.
In the case of the harp, the matter was complicated by the fact numerous forms of the instrument were in use in officialdom, from the 14-stringed harp on coins to a nine-stringed one on departmental notepaper. A gold instrument, with silver strings on a blue background was the principal colour scheme but there were other versions featuring different colours.
A legal adviser in the attorney general's office Arthur F Plunkett suggested it would be better to register a "generic harp" rather than a number of very specific harp designs as the latter might be circumvented by making minor changes such as altering the number of strings, the colour of the harp, or its background.
It was acknowledged that Guinness had used the right-facing harp since the 19th century. But Mr Plunkett said any objection from the company to the state doing likewise could be answered on the basis that the government "presumably has no intention of interfering" with the company's trademark, "even if it could, which I regard as very doubtful".
Patent agents Tomkins & Co, employed by the government on the case, informed officials the following month, however, "we do not consider that mirror images of the harp symbol could be notified to WIPO" under existing rules. While the state might be able to register a right-facing harp "it is possible that such notification could debar the registration by Guinness of their trademark in territories where they do not currently trade but may wish to do so in the foreseeable future".
The government took the agents’ advice and in 1984 registered with WIPO a “generic”, nine-stringed harp facing in just one direction – left.