Air New Zealand has applied to trademark the "Kia Ora" logo it uses, but a trademark law expert says it not might succeed and at a minimum is "not the wisest PR move".
The airline made the application to the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office in mid-May.
News of the application was met with criticism on social media, where users thought the airline had applied to trademark the phrase, "kia ora".
But an Air New Zealand spokeswoman confirmed the application was to protect the logo of their magazine, Kia Ora, which has been around since 2007, and not the phrase.
"This is the logo for the magazine title. It's standard corporate practice to have all our logos trademarked and we have just started the process given Kia Ora has recently been through a refresh.
"The word kia ora has been registered to be used for a range of goods and services – dating back to 1992 – both in New Zealand and overseas."
A search on the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office website showed there were 400 registered trademarks or applications that related to "kia ora", and 19 that had the "kia ora" phrase.
University of Auckland department of commercial law associate professor Alex Sims said Air New Zealand's application would need to go through the Māori Trade Marks Advisory Committee, which provides advice to the Commissioner of Trade Marks.
"The test is whether their use of 'Kia Ora' is offensive to Māori," Sims said.
"That normally occurs with words or images considered tapu, such as using a Māori chief's face with tā moko. That occurred in the past, but would not be let through now.
"This one is on the border. It is not as offensive as those words and images that are tapu, but it is a very important and common greeting for Māori."
The fact it was a logo and not a phrase, and limited to use in magazines, meant it was more likely to be successful, Sims said.
Even if a trademark was granted it would not give the airline a monopoly over the phrase, as the application was only for an image and for magazine use.
Without a trademark the airline's logo would still be protected under the Fair Trading Act, but registering it would save the airline time having to monitor breaches, Sims said.
"Still, people need to be really careful about registering anything regarding Māori words. There is far more recognition for Māori culture now than there was back in the day - I don't know if this was the wisest PR move."
New Zealand Māori Council spokesman Matthew Tukaki has criticised the application, threatening to take Air New Zealand to court.
"I am sick and tired of cultural appropriation and in fact all Māori are. Our language is a national treasure for all of us and we need to respect it. It's not here for business to use it and profit from it as they see fit."
For Māori Language Week, Air New Zealand announced te reo as a language option on its kiosks and inflight entertainment.
The airline has faced criticism in the past for its approach to Māori culture, most recently in March over its tattoo policy that did not allow staff to have tā moko.
In June the airline announced a backdown on the policy, and from September 1 has allowed staff to have tā moko and/or non-offensive tattoos visible when wearing their uniform or normal business dress.
In 2018 United States businessman Ross Kashtan successfully trademarked the word "bula" in his country for his businesses Bula Kafe, Bula on the Beach and Bula Coco Beach.
The move sparked outrage from the Pasifika community worldwide.