In Seattle, I first learned of the far reach of Magic Hat Brewing Company. Though they do distribute their own beer in Seattle, they certainly care about the market. And promises that they would someday return to it and sell beer led them to fight vigilantly to preserve their intellectual property in the Seattle market.
In 2009, Magic Hat went after local Seattle brewery, Georgetown Brewing Company, over its “#9″ trademark. Georgetown was selling a beer called “9lb Porter”, which was brewed in honor of one of my favorite drinking establishments – The 9lb Hammer. Though Georgetown was a purely regional brewery, only selling in Washington state, and Magic Hat did not sell a single beer in the state – they pushed hard.
Magic Hat sent formal notice that “#9″ and “9lb” were confusing and that it would dilute the brand’s image. After much deliberation, threats of federal litigation, and offers of expensive limited licenses, Georgetown simply said “enough.” They changed the beer’s name to the uber-descriptive – and no TM risk – “Georgetown Porter.” The experience was my first real look at how Magic Hat and other larger breweries aggressively protect their brands. I don’t think they made a lot of friends over that whole incident.
Recently, Magic Hat went at it again. This time, they actually filed a federal lawsuit against Lexington, KY brewer – West Sixth Brewing Company. West Sixth’s logo is a number “6” and a “dingbat star” encapsulated in a circle. Around the logo is the name “West Sixth Brewing Company Lexington, Kentucky.” So according to Magic Hat, the dingbat star and 6 – along with the use of “Company” in the name, conjure up confusion between the products. I’m not sold.
In any event, Magic Hat flexed some muscle, spent some money, and drug the small Kentucky brewery into court. What followed may have not been expected – a social media blitz that condemned Magic Hat and urged public support for West Sixth. The campaign managed to garner the signatures of 17,000 West Sixth supporters and grab the attention of national media. Probably not the response that Magic Hat was looking for, and very likely damaging to their sales and image.
As a result of the backlash, Magic Hat filed a preliminary injunction to force West Sixth to stop the campaign (citing damages). That motion forced the two sides to quickly huddle and work out a compromise. West Sixth would remove the dingbat star and the word “Company” from the logo and Magic Hat would dismiss everything.
There was a caveat – a somewhat embarrassing public retraction of sorts by West Sixth. The two breweries issued a short public statement that essentially said that West Sixth didn’t mean anything they had been saying about Magic Hat and it was all an error. Yeah right. I think consumers are a bit more intelligent than that. What is humorous to me is that Magic Hat actually tied some sort of value to the retraction, and the possibility that West Sixth would be willing to issue it likely had a hand in getting this settled. So I applaud the team at West Sixth if they were able to convince Magic Hat of that – kudos.
The moral of the story here is that aggressive trademark enforcement has never worked out well for larger breweries. Often they become the butt of internet jokes and backlash and I rest on my statement, over and over again, that breweries need to keep these conversations to themselves. Our industry is a brotherhood and diplomacy is well rewarded.