The Skinny on Red Bull vs. Old Ox Brewery: Understanding this Brewery Trademark Dispute

Virginia craft brewery Old Ox faces a trademark opposition from energy drink giant Red Bull. Is Red Bull being a Red Bully? Read on to learn more.
Virginia craft brewery Old Ox faces a trademark opposition from energy drink giant Red Bull. Is Red Bull being a Red Bully? Read on to learn more.

Here’s what Red Bull vs. Old Ox Brewery is and what it isn’t. If you read the Brewery Law Blog, you know I love craft beer trademarks more than the average Esquire. Same goes for craft cider trademarks, mead trademarks, the whole lot. Over the last year, I’ve appreciated seeing the public get fired up about a craft beer trademark dispute in the making. Having said that, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. This is especially the case when word of a brewery trademark spat takes off and spreads all over social media, as it definitely has this time. A lot of the misunderstanding stems from not knowing exactly what’s at stake in any given trademark dispute.

What Red Bull vs. Old Ox Brewery isn’t:

This trademark dispute is not a lawsuit over whether Old Ox Brewery can use its name or logo. This dispute has not reached federal court. It is not a lawsuit. That might happen. But, so far, this matter has nothing to do with whether Old Ox Brewery can call itself Old Ox Brewery or whether they can use their logo.

What Red Bull vs. Old Ox Brewery is:

This is an administrative opposition proceeding. This involves whether the United States should grant Old Ox Brewery a federal trademark (which gives you important rights). So, this matter completely involves Old Ox Brewery’s right to register their brand name. It has nothing to do with whether Old Ox Brewery can use that brand name. Of course, Old Ox Brewery may not want to use a brand name if they can’t use it with the benefit of important federal trademark rights.

It's important to understand what this proceeding between Red Bull and Old Ox is and what it isn't. Importantly, Red Bull hasn't sued Old Ox Brewery.
It’s important to understand what this proceeding between Red Bull and Old Ox is and what it isn’t. Importantly, Red Bull hasn’t sued Old Ox Brewery.

How the Red Bull vs. Old Ox Brewery dispute came to be:

We can’t know all the details and interactions. But, here’s how these sorts of proceedings typically get started.

  1. Old Ox Brewery prudently sought to protect its intended brand name. It applied for an intent-to-use trademark for both its name and its logo. Breweries can file intent-to-use trademarks, before they ever open up, so they can feel confident moving forward and investing in their brand and branding materials. If you read the blog, I champion proactive brewery trademark clearance and registration quite a bit.
  2. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) examines every trademark application that comes in, and looks to see whether the mark should be allowed to register. There are technical defects in applications, and then there are issues like the mark being too descriptive or too similar to another registered mark.
  3. If USPTO thinks the mark is okay, the mark publishes for thirty days for others to review. Here, Old Ox Brewery’s marks published on September 30, 2014.
  4. Publication is a chance for everyone else outside of USPTO to protect their interests. Whereas USPTO may not find a problem with a mark during its limited review, actual brand holders have an important stake in their brand. They may see an issue with a potential mark that USPTO doesn’t or doesn’t catch, and publication gives everyone a chance to prevent a mark from registering. Keep in mind, if a mark registers, it gets important rights and becomes more difficult to combat.
  5. Red Bull no doubt has a legal team all over the USPTO Gazette (where marks publish each week). Notably, beer is in the same trademark class (032) as energy drinks, soda, bottled water, etc. That’s likely how Red Bull found it so quickly. They monitor Class 032 every week for problematic uses. However, bear in mind class has nothing to do with whether two marks are confusingly similar, it’s merely an administrative convenience for USPTO. Confusing similarity will turn on a number of things, including comparing the actual goods in the application vs. Red Bull’s.

Why Red Bull is doing this, even if you don’t think the marks are similar:

Opposition proceedings are relatively cheap. If a trademark owner sees a problem with another mark, an opposition proceeding can quickly nip it in the bud. It costs $300 to file and not much time to prepare a notice of opposition. On the other side, often small brands feel scared and don’t want to fight (or don’t have the funds to fight), so they willingly abandon their mark. This is often the case when it’s an intent-to-use mark (as Old Ox Brewery’s is), which typically means the mark isn’t yet in use at all or, at the very least, hasn’t been used too widely for very long. It appears Old Ox Brewery has been in operation for about seven months. So, $300, one filed document, and Red Bull potentially never has to worry about whether the Old Ox marks really are confusing again—because they’re gone. Some might think that’s bullying, others might think it’s effective brand protection.

What often happens behind the scenes in scenarios like the Red Bull v. Old Ox Brewery:

Usually, everyone wants out of an opposition proceeding. Here, Red Bull admittedly has a lot more in its cash reserves than the typical opposer. What can happen is that the two brands come to some agreement. They iron out a “coexistence agreement” which is essentially a plan for both brands to coexist in the marketplace to avoid consumer confusion. That might mean that one brand avoids the other’s colors and imagery or that Old Ox Brewery never makes an energy drink or a soda of any kind. In fact, given Red Bull’s statements to the media, it looks like they do want to iron something out:

“Red Bull has not sued anyone. Brands, big and small, seek to protect their trademarks every day. All we are asking for is to allow the administrative process at the US Patent & Trademark Office to run its course and we remain hopeful that a fair settlement can be reached by both parties.”

What could happen in Red Bull v. Old Ox Brewery:

If they don’t strike up a coexistence agreement, a few things could happen. Old Ox Brewery could forget about its trademarks and give up fighting on the USPTO front. As I highlighted before, though, this has nothing to do with whether Old Ox Brewery can use those marks. This is not a lawsuit. We might expect a full-on lawsuit from Red Bull in federal court, which they could file at any time given Old Ox is using their marks already in a territory Red Bull no doubt is in. Whatever you think of Red Bull’s merits in the lawsuit, they certainly have the most cash in the bank to drag things out and make it hurt. Thus, we typically a smaller brand like Old Ox Brewery just change its name, to avoid sinking cash into something like this, when it could be using that money to fuel its awesome growth. Meanwhile, whatever the outcome, Red Bull has scared off other users from adopting anything with the word “Ox” in the name going forward, showing everyone just how broadly they construe their brand. We’ll see where this one goes.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that beyond any confusing similarity between the marks, Red Bull can also toss in a claim of trademark dilution. If you have a famous mark, there’s an additional mechanism to protect it. We didn’t see this ground included in Red Bull’s Notice of Opposition, but it’s certainly something extra we might see tossed into any federal lawsuit, which would add even more to defend against, whatever you think of the merits.

Red Bull v. Old Ox Brewery, The Wrap-up:

I hope that gives everyone better insight into the Red Bull v. Old Ox Brewery matter. When reviewing an emerging trademark dispute, it’s important to pay attention to where it is procedurally. Is this in federal court involving a right to use a mark? Or is this an administrative proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board involving a right to register a mark? That can help onlookers understand exactly what’s at stake. For more on trademark law, and why federal trademark rights matter, see our Brewery Trademark Law Explained (In a Nutshell) post here.

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