Brewery Copyright Beer Label Woes: A Tale From Canada

What’s the inspiration behind your beer label? Do you know if it’s original?

So many of our brewery clients have rad acquaintances who are graphic designers, eager to get onboard and build out brand material for little cost. Other breweries may not have the personal connections, but recognize the importance of brand material, and make significant investments in outside creative professional services. Both are great routes, and our post last year touched on copyright concerns in structuring even the most informal of those relationships, to make sure copyright ownership flowed fully to the brewery. Today, I’ll renew our discussion, highlighting another important point. This one is unfortunately inspired by headlines involving our friends up there in Canada, and it emphasizes again how important it is to get a strong creative services agreement in place whenever you’re engaging outside help.

This is the original label design Canada’s Central City Brewing had adopted for it saison, before getting word of a potential copyright infringement claim.

Take a look at these two images. One is a beer label, the other an excerpt from a comic book. Eerie similarities, right? It turns out that Canada’s Central City Brewing hired an agency to create a beer label for its saison. The day before its release, the brewery proudly posted its rocking label art on its Twitter account.

This is artwork from the Powers comic book series, depicting character Deena Pilgrim. I think we can all agree that artist who made the beer label did not independently arrive at the design.
This is artwork from the Powers comic book series, depicting character Deena Pilgrim. I think we can all agree that artist who made the beer label did not independently arrive at the design.

Literally hours before the beer was due to be in stores, Twitter fans pointed out the infringement issue with the character Deena Pilgrim from the comic book series Powers. It seems the brewery had no idea, and thought it was getting a cool piece of original artwork.

So, what happened? The brewery had to put the release on hold and paste 24,000 new labels by hand onto its bottles. Below is an image of the new beer label. (Sidebar: Bear in mind that ideas are not protected by copyright law, but expression is. The concept of a foxy detective wielding her badge isn’t infringement, but as you drill down into specific choices—the placement of fingers on the badge, the style of the hair, the facial expression, the angle of the stance, the decisions involving light and shadows—that’s when you cross the line from idea over into expression. That’s when you run into problems.) Ultimately, this is a frustrating outlay of cash. And, although we’d like to think it was avoidable on the part of the ad agency, I’d like to think it’s easily reimbursable based on the agreement in place between the companies.

Here's the design that Central City ended up landing on for their Detective Saison. It may still have the same idea behind it, but the expression is what matters here.
Here’s the design that Central City ended up landing on for their Detective Saison. It may still have the same idea behind it, but the expression is what matters here.

So, how do you avoid this sort of issue? First, it’s important to get an agreement with your designer in writing that not only vests ownership in the brewery, but one that also is designed to address situations like this. That’s what a contract does, it sorts out who is liable for what, in the event all sorts of things go wrong with the relationship. This is the sort of thing that could foreseeable go wrong with a creative services relationship. We don’t know what was in the agreement here. But, it’s important to note that it was a professional agency that turned out the problematic work. Do you know where the design direction for your logos came from? Do you know what works were used as inspiration? It’s important to note that even the most talented of designers may not be familiar with the nuances of trademark and copyright, which are often confused in the media. In evaluating trademarks, a comparison of the goods/services in question comes into play. A badge-wielding agent could be used in connection with computer speakers and a brand of beer, and consumers probably wouldn’t be confused. But, when it comes to copyright, protectable elements of a work are afforded strong rights, even and especially when they’re used in different media and on different goods and services.

Best practice is to be proactive and get a copyright agreement in place. On the flipside, best practice is also to copyright your own works as soon as they’re created. No one wants to be the one slapping new labels on through the night, with doubt in your mind about just how easily you’ll get this expense covered. Beyond that, no one wants to be the company whose valuable brand material just got infringed upon. Taking both steps help best protect your brewing business, no matter how the dice roll.

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