Avoiding Headlines: Thoughts on the Lost Coast v. Aviator Brewery Trademark Lawsuit

Another brewery trademark lawsuit in the news. Lost Coast from California is suing Aviator from North Carolina over use of a shark-themed mark on beer.
Another brewery trademark lawsuit in the news. Lost Coast from California is suing Aviator from North Carolina over use of a shark-themed mark on beer.

It’s no longer surprising to hear about a brewery v. brewery trademark conflict. Even the non-legal-news follower hears about these disputes all the time, and most of what gets reported are conflicts during the registration process called opposition proceedings, which go before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). Often, brewers come to an agreement before those things ever turn into expensive disputes, and filing an opposition or an extension of time to oppose can be more of a way for a brewery to preserve the issue and buy the time to come to an agreement before the other brewery’s mark registers. At any rate, what are far fewer are true brewery v. brewery lawsuits being played out in federal district court. These sorts of lawsuits tend to be more expensive, the stakes are high, and—of course—they also typically get resolved (at least, we always hope) before a judge or jury makes the call.

With that backdrop, we’re here to report that another brewery v. brewery trademark dispute has made its way into federal court in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. This time, it’s the brewery we all know as Lost Coast from California (technically named as Table Bluff Brewing, Inc. as the plaintiff in the suit), and the alleged beer trademark infringer is Aviator Brewing Company from North Carolina. You may have seen some reporting on this elsewhere, and we need not comment too much on the case. The pictures tell the big part of the story on this one. But, what interests us maybe most of all is the story behind the story, which we can’t know and can only guess about. But, as a beer law firm, it’s the story we’re a part of all the time: helping breweries avoid getting into court and into headlines because of these potential disputes.

It would surprise us if Lost Coast didn’t attempt to reach out and settle this privately. After all, who wants to spend the $400 and the who-knows-how-much in attorneys’ fees in putting a complaint together? And, from the looks of the complaint, Lost Coast is in a pretty good position. They obtained a federal trademark registration for their Great White design all the way back fourteen years ago in 2000.

Lost Coast's design mark that was registered in September 2000.
Lost Coast’s design mark that was registered in September 2000.

Again, they didn’t merely register the word “GREAT WHITE” but they registered the design itself. The design registration includes the following in its description: “A fanciful cubist style shark stands on a sandy beach holding a surfboard in one fin and a mug of beer in the other. The surfboard has a bite taken out of the top of it.” You’ve seen the Aviator design, so you know what’s at issue. But, from our very basic research, it doesn’t seem like Aviator even formed as a brewery until the late 2000s. Again, we can only guess that these breweries got in touch before filing the suit, but it’s a pretty good guess. And, although we can’t fault Aviator for trying to negotiate hard to keep some rights to what is a cool design and, no doubt, an important brand to them, we also feel bummed for both breweries and the brewing industry generally that another one of these trademark disputes has made the headlines.
It’s always our goal at Reiser Legal to help breweries resolve stuff behind the scenes. And, we are consistently amazed and delighted at how brewery owners are willing to give up a little turf that they may well have a better claim to, just to help another brewery out and avoid generating any bad blood. Really, the camaraderie in this industry is downright inspiring. Of course, when the overlap between two marks is too great, there’s not a lot that can be done to get a workable coexistence agreement in place. And, breweries like Lost Coast are totally within their rights (and positively charged with the responsibility) to enforce their registered marks.

Outside of the nitty gritty of this particular dispute, from our chair, there’s some wisdom in this one for any brewery that chooses, for whatever reason, to avoid registering all of its beer names and designs. It’s always a brewery’s own business call to invest in registration, and as this dispute and others highlight, we all can see why it’s well worth it. But, if the money’s not there or a brewery chooses to take a gamble on a design/name without registering, there’s a more affordable option that can at least offer some protection. A brewery might consider at least having its attorney make sure no one else has a substantially similar design or word mark already registered. That way, a brewery can generate bona fide common law rights, hopefully encouraging others to steer clear of that design/word mark—a better position than potential infringement from the start.

Last, we’ll nerd out on a legal thought, and welcome comments from our fellow beer and TM attorneys. There’s no copyright claim in Lost Coast’s complaint. We see at least that minimal spark of creativity here, and being able to prove 17 U.S.C. infringement, even if it’s just the threat of liability in encouraging settlement, offers potentially more to the plaintiff than under the Lanham Act. Maybe the brewery hopes to get this one out of the way early, with the least expense. Then again, it does seem worth amending to add another cause of action. What do you think?

We’ll keep you posted here as this one progresses.

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