Is Your Distributable Beer Brand Trademarkable?

Your beverage brand is racy, but it passes label muster thanks to the First Amendment. Can it be denied a trademark?

Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? You bet, although the First Amendment's protections don't extend to every trademark application. Read on!
Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? USPTO has said yes! Although the First Amendment’s protections don’t per se extend to every conceivable brand direction you may want to trademark.

Credit goes to my beer trademark law chum Alex Christian over at Davis Brown in Iowa for pointing out this nuance, which is worthy of a post of its own today. In the past, I’ve written about the issue of having a potentially trademarkable beer name or logo, yet not being able to distribute that beer because of Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) issues. That is, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) may control a brewery’s speech on labels when, for example, the label is misleading, touts the intoxicating effects of the beverage, or would be appealing to kids. More on that here. Essentially, in that scenario, a brewery might have an otherwise trademarkable piece of branding material, but be unable to obtain a COLA to put that label or beer name into interstate commerce.

Here’s a different scenario. Imagine your beer name itself is distributable. It isn’t misleading. It’s not touting the effects of alcohol. It’s not appealing to kids. Now, if the label has subjectively “racy” content, we know the First Amendment is going to kick in and protect that brewery’s speech on the label. See my post last week on the case of Flying Dog and its Raging Bitch beer label, which caused a bit of a stir with Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission, which had initially (and improperly) rejected the label, contrary to Flying Dog Brewery’s First Amendment rights.

Could it be that the reverse is also true? That is, can you have a distributable beer label or brand that is not trademarkable? Indeed. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) operates under the framework of the Lanham Act. Bear in mind that within the Lanham Act, USPTO is to refuse a mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter . . . .” There are a few other grounds for refusal, outlined in 15 U.S.C. § 1052. In fact, readers might be aware of the ongoing matter involving the registrability of “Redskins.”

So, you might say, wait a minute. If the First Amendment protects the government from restricting labels with subjectively scandalous content, then how can USPTO refuse registrations on this sort of ground?  You might wonder, can USPTO, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), and courts applying the law really do this, without affronting First Amendment rights? So far, they can. The distinction is that, by not granting a federal trademark, the government has not prevented the party’s use of the mark. You can speak on. The use would just not be granted the presumptions and protections connected with a federal trademark. A great case on point here was the matter of 1-800-JACK-OFF, a trademark sought for services it doesn’t take much imagination to determine.

So, in sum, some trademarkable beer names are not distributable. In the reverse, some distributable beer names are trademarkable. In the case of Flying Dog Brewery, however, they do have a trademark for their “Raging Bitch” brand of brew. In fact, I was surprised to see just how crowded the field of “Bitch” marks is on alcohol beverages. Among them, we have the pure and simple “BITCH” mark, as well as a battery of marks from different owners, with most of these bitches seeming to favor wine brands. You’ll find “HAPPY BITCH” but also “CRAZY BITCH”, “NASTY BITCH”, the nautical-themed “BEACH BITCH” and then “JEALOUS BITCH”, though that “RICH BITCH” is no longer protected.

At any rate, when developing a standout product for a brewery or beverage business, it can be fun to push the boundaries with creative ingredients and processes. To match the brew’s personality or create some pop on a crowded taplist or retail shelf, it can also be tempting to push the boundaries with the brand material itself. The First Amendment does kick in to protect a brewery’s speech on its labels, allowing all kinds of vulgar things to potentially come to market. Thanks, Bill of Rights! Nevertheless, so far, to develop a brand under the protections of a federal trademark, you’ll have to keep it a bit cleaner. In fairness, although it’s still a subjective call at the end of the day, the powers that be who review trademarks take a pretty measured approach in determining whether a mark warrants refusal for these reasons under the Lanham Act. Still, for any brand owner or marketer, it’s important to know the line exists.

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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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Lagunitas to Sierra Nevada: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Edit 1/14/2015 at 2:06pm PST: Indeed, Lagunitas dismissed the lawsuit. Thanks to Twitter for breaking the news and the screen cap. As this fellow beer attorney points out and helpfully includes the filing, it’s dismissed in a way that Lagunitas could sue again, but I think we know what kind of uproar that would cause. That said, if anything was ever going to associate those two marks in consumer’s minds, certainly now this lawsuit will!

  See our coverage yesterday on the Lagunitas – Sierra Nevada lawsuit, directing you to the public’s overwhelming reaction in favor of Sierra Nevada. Lagunitas owner Tony Magee, via the tweets below, called yesterday the “worst day ever” in the brewery’s history and vowed to drop the lawsuit this morning. We’ll report back if that’s the case. Some Twitter followers are asking Tony Magee to apologize. Indeed, this particular dispute-that-was may well beat out the Magic Hat / West Sixth catastrophe. Turns out the increasingly trademark-savvy public is quick to defend even the big guys, too.

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Lagunitas vs Sierra Nevada: Be the Jury

Edit: Once the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada story broke, public opinion convinced Lagunitas owner Tony Magee to call the whole thing off. See his tweets below, noting how sometimes there’s the court of law and other times the court of public opinion. Again, the consumer discussion thread pointed to below gives you insight into how the public reacted to this one. This particular dispute-that-was may well beat out the Magic Hat / West Sixth catastrophe. Turns out the increasingly trademark-savvy public is quick to defend even the big guys, too.

 


Original Story: I’m sitting out on really dissecting the Lagunitas vs Sierra Nevada trademark lawsuit involving the IPA packaging/lettering here (it’s 3:15-cv-00153, filed by Lagunitas on Jan. 12, 2015). There’s a lot of really wonderful attorney coverage and also consumer-reaction coverage out there. No doubt, you’ve likely already come across it and developed some opinions of your own. If you haven’t, I recommend starting here for some good links and balanced perspective on the pending brewery trademark lawsuit, including the original Lagunitas complaint.

As you start with your instincts and keep thinking about the issues, what I will do is provide some basic resources for curious onlookers trying to figure out what’s at stake here—and how this sort of thing would really be analyzed in court. If this thing even gets that far.

First, for fun—as an example of how some consumers are feeling—you can check out this coverage with consumer discussion bubbling up in the comments.

Next, the meat. Here are factors that a judge could ask a real jury to consider in determining whether there’s any sort of trademark infringement going on here. (I’m pasting in model jury instructions from the 9th Circuit website, within which the California federal court involved is located). Boiling it down a bit, the ultimate question (if this eventually gets to a jury) would essentially be, does Sierra Nevada’s use of the trademark(s) make it likely that an ordinary consumer would be confused, believing that Sierra Nevada’s goods originated from, were sponsored by, or affiliated with Lagunitas? These factors below help the jury make that determination.

Judge to Jury Instructions Used in Cases Like the Lagunitas vs Sierra Nevada Brewery Trademark Lawsuit

This Lagunitas v. Sierra Nevada lawsuit is happening. Read the gist of the potential jury instructions. What do you think?
This Lagunitas v. Sierra Nevada lawsuit is happening. Read the gist of the potential jury instructions. What do you think?

We don’t have all the evidence, but we do have this picture to start the conversation. Here are sample instructions a judge might give a jury in a case like this—what do you think?

“You must consider whether the defendant’s use of the trademark is likely to cause confusion about the source of the plaintiff’s or the defendant’s goods.

I will suggest some factors you should consider in deciding this. The presence or absence of any particular factor that I suggest should not necessarily resolve whether there was a likelihood of confusion, because you must consider all relevant evidence in determining this. As you consider the likelihood of confusion you should examine the following:

1. Strength or Weakness of the Plaintiff’s Mark. The more the consuming public recognizes the plaintiff’s trademark as an indication of origin of the plaintiff’s goods, the more likely it is that consumers would be confused about the source of the defendant’s goods if the defendant uses a similar mark.

2. Defendant’s Use of the Mark. If the defendant and plaintiff use their trademarks on the same, related, or complementary kinds of goods there may be a greater likelihood of confusion about the source of the goods than otherwise.

3. Similarity of Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s Marks. If the overall impression created by the plaintiff’s trademark in the marketplace is similar to that created by the defendant’s trademark in [appearance] [sound] [or] [meaning], there is a greater chance [that consumers are likely to be confused by defendant’s use of a mark] [of likelihood of confusion]. [Similarities in appearance, sound or meaning weigh more heavily than differences in finding the marks are similar].

4. Actual Confusion. If use by the defendant of the plaintiff’s trademark has led to instances of actual confusion, this strongly suggests a likelihood of confusion. However actual confusion is not required for a finding of likelihood of confusion. Even if actual confusion did not occur, the defendant’s use of the trademark may still be likely to cause confusion. As you consider whether the trademark used by the defendant creates for consumers a likelihood of confusion with the plaintiff’s trademark, you should weigh any instances of actual confusion against the opportunities for such confusion. If the instances of actual confusion have been relatively frequent, you may find that there has been substantial actual confusion. If, by contrast, there is a very large volume of sales, but only a few isolated instances of actual confusion you may find that there has not been substantial actual confusion.

5. Defendant’s Intent. Knowing use by defendant of the plaintiff’s trademark to identify similar goods may strongly show an intent to derive benefit from the reputation of the plaintiff’s mark, suggesting an intent to cause a likelihood of confusion. On the other hand, even in the absence of proof that the defendant acted knowingly, the use of plaintiff’s trademark to identify similar goods may indicate a likelihood of confusion.

6. Marketing/Advertising Channels. If the plaintiff’s and defendant’s [goods] [services] are likely to be sold in the same or similar stores or outlets, or advertised in similar media, this may increase the likelihood of confusion.

7. Consumer’s Degree of Care. The more sophisticated the potential buyers of the goods or the more costly the goods, the more careful and discriminating the reasonably prudent purchaser exercising ordinary caution may be. They may be less likely to be confused by similarities in the plaintiff’s and defendant’s trademarks.

8. Product Line Expansion. When the parties’ products differ, you may consider how likely the plaintiff is to begin selling the products for which the defendant is using the plaintiff’s trademark. If there is a strong possibility of expanding into the other party’s market, there is a greater likelihood of confusion.

[9. Other Factors. Any other factors that bear on likelihood of confusion.]”


Now that you know what you know, what do you think about the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada trademark lawsuit?

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Brewery Trademark Law Explained (In a Nutshell)

Here’s the skinny on why proactive brewery trademark practices are a must. This is as brief-yet-thorough of an overview on brewery trademark law (and why it’s important) as I can muster. The takeaway is the same: (1) clear early and often; (2) file immediately; (3) regularly monitor. Here goes:

Brewery Trademark Law Explained

Proactive brewery trademark law practices are essential in today's increasingly crowded marketplace.
Proactive brewery trademark law practices are essential in today’s increasingly crowded alcoholic beverage marketplace.

Federal trademarks are a first-to-file game and they give nationwide rights. If brewery #1 sells branded beer without a registration, brewery #2 (or winery, distillery, meadery…you get it) can register the same or similar name at any time, even if brewery #2 picked the name solely because they saw brewery #1 using it and liked it. Very technically, brewery #2 would take those trademark rights subject to the trading territory brewery #1 had established on the date brewery #2 filed. Realistically, it costs a lot for brewery #1 to enforce even that limited territory it would have priority to—and brewery #1 could never expand beyond that limited territory without risking a cease and desist / litigation / name change, so those so-called priority rights become less attractive. Looking at it another way, even if no one officially registers brewery #1’s beer or brewery name, other breweries would be free to adopt that unregistered name and establish similar limited rights in their respective territories, with no issues unless those territories cross. Brewery #1 couldn’t do anything about that.

Oftentimes the quiet name changes we see aren’t because a brewery failed to be first to market, but first to the register, so brewery #1 changes the name because they’re no longer interested in a brand name if it means they can only sell under the brand in one state, or one pocket of one state.

The takeaway is that, today, if a brewery cares about rights to a beer name, brewery name, series name, what-have-you, best practice is to:

  1. Proactively seek a trademark clearance report for each and every beer or brand name (and, of course, the overarching brewery name) the brewery plans to launch. We run these daily at a low flat fee.
  2. If the results are clear, file immediately. A brewery need not be using the mark to file.
  3. Regularly monitor to make sure no one is using the same or similar mark.

That’s that—brewery trademark law in a nutshell.

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