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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Open a Brewery the Affordable and Easy Way.

It's easier—and can be more affordable—than you might think to start a brewery in Washington state.
It’s easier—and can be more affordable—than you might think to start a brewery in Washington state.

This post is for the dreamers—those who want to open a brewery, without giving up their primary careers just yet. I’m here to say it’s possible—promising, even. So, here are my thoughts on how you can invest in yourself. You can open up a brewery the easy and affordable way, without sinking cash into mega start-up costs. Here’s how.

Before fully digging in, I’ll note that it’s the holiday season. Time with family, especially over some special brews and beverages, can refocus us all, and for anyone with an entrepreneurial streak, that refocusing can resurface dreams of a family-owned business—something to support those closest to you now, and well into the future. And, for many of us homebrewers, that dream usually involves a homegrown brewery, cidery, meadery, or distillery.

If you’re just exploring the idea, or you’ve been batting it around for a bit and don’t know where to start, it’s worth noting that a brewery start-up can take so many different kinds of forms. But, for many of us, the prospect of leaving one career to jump into a less-certain other can make the dream seem too risky. For others, the start-up costs or investment obstacles alone can make the dream seem too impossible. Today, though, this post is all about the possible.

One of the most affordable, least risky, and easiest ways to open a brewery is to open a brewery…without opening a brewery. Rather than invest in a massive system, long-term lease, and take on full-time brewing from the get-go, clever potential brewery owners can get some brews on the market without too much skin in the game. We’ve covered these sorts of contract brewing and alternating proprietorship arrangements in the past, back in 2011. But, it’s worth revisiting now, as it’s an underutilized option to get brewing. These arrangements are legal from TTB’s perspective, and in a number of states, including Washington. It’s the real deal. For those in Washington, there’s more background on contract brewing here, here, and here, and helpful information on alternating proprietorships here.

The gist of an alternating proprietorship is, you’d be getting licensed up, but rather than outfitting your own start-up brewery, you’d be opening a brewery as a “tenant” brewer from time to time at another commercial brewery. You’d bottle into your own bottles or keg into your own kegs, with your own label approvals, and you’d be completely in control of your inventory. You just wouldn’t have to invest in the space from the start. It’s sort of like a tool lending library, on the massive brewing scale. In contrast, contract brewing arrangements allow you to contract with an existing brewery and have them responsible for making the beer for you. You can craft the recipe, but they’d be the licensed parties brewing it up.

So, for those of you wanting to get your feet wet in the brewing business, without getting underwater, alternating proprietorships and contract brewing arrangements are real possibilities, and Reiser Legal or your local beer attorney is available to help new brewery owners open a brewery, test out the market, get their goods out there, and make cash to reinvest into the future brewery, without putting your primary career on hold. Of course, having said all of that, it costs a lot less than you’d think to start up a nano brewery, and there are many investors eager to be a part of the fun. See our post on brewery start-up costs here. But, if you’re not sure about the “wheres” of your commercial facility, and don’t want to plant deep roots just yet, contract brewing or alternating proprietorships are a viable option, and we’re here to help you get started.

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Washington State Beer Label Requirements

For fun, here's a little behind the scenes look at this gal's current stash.
For fun, here’s a little behind the scenes look at this gal’s stash.

So, you’re ready to package. Awesome. What should be top of mind when preparing a Washington-ready beer label? There are a few things to note but, in general, compliance with TTB regulations will get you close to compliant with LCB. However, there are some extra Washington laws and regs to keep in mind.

If a Washington brewery is ready to package and sell—or an out-of-state brewery is interested in beer distribution in the State of Washington—there are certain labeling requirements set forth by the Washington legislature and the Washington Liquor Control Board (LCB). Fortunately, the beer labeling requirements are not particularly cumbersome. Notably, LCB’s direct label approval is not required. However, LCB does require that in-state breweries and out-of-state breweries alike obtain a federally approved label, known as a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) before getting beer on the shelves. To be ready to ship or distribute beer in Washington, the producer must submit a copy of the federal COLA to LCB and, it goes without saying, have proper licensure. If a brewery makes changes that require a new label approval from TTB, the brewery likewise will have to submit that new label to LCB.

As for Washington’s own beer-labeling requirements, if a brewery is complying with federal regulations, the brewery is likely to be okay under LCB’s approach. However, the LCB does reserve the right to deny any label that doesn’t conform to their basic requirements and rules. What are those? Things you’d expect, and things that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) mostly already requires (though LCB and TTB may disagree about some subjective calls). No label can be misleading, you can’t make labels that especially appeal to children, and if you’re going to show adults on the label, the depiction has to be dignified and can’t promote illegal consumption of liquor. There are some other ones, so be sure to review the relevant regs and statutes, or shoot the proposed label to your beer lawyer for a quick review before submission.

As a reminder that regs can be quaint at times, LCB expressly prohibits subliminal messaging on labels or in beer advertising. So, for you crafty cats, make sure there’s nothing up your sleeves.

Last and maybe most notably of all, if a brewery wants to ship strong beer in Washington (that’s over 8% ABV), the brewery must include the ABV amount on the label. This differs from federal requirements, as TTB does not require an ABV statement. Something for producers to keep in mind.

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT INDIANA’S PROBLEMATIC BEER REGULATIONS – PART 2 OF 4.

During Prohibition, booze flowed through unregulated channels and gangsters ruled the roost. In light of that, and some pre-Prohibition concerns, States were eager to adopt regulations that made sure all alcohol flowing into a State was taxed and that organized crime couldn't take control.
During Prohibition, booze flowed through unregulated channels and gangsters ruled the roost. In light of that, and other pre-Prohibition concerns, States were eager to adopt regulations that made sure all alcohol flowing into a State was taxed and that organized crime couldn’t take control.

Back to our regularly-scheduled programming. In our last content post, we promised an exploration of problems with protectionist legislation. In other words, laws that help in-staters while hurting out-of-staters, and why it’s no good for the brewing industry at large. Before getting there, though, today’s part of the discussion involves state concerns leading up to Prohibition, the problems that were still rampant during Prohibition, and how states dealt with it all after Prohibition (including implementing that three-tier distribution system we all know and don’t necessarily love). This is a general post, but you can find much more background in sections I–II here of Brewing Tension: The Constitutionality of Indiana’s Sunday Beer-Carryout Laws.

So, starting Pre-Pro. We didn’t have the Twenty-first Amendment yet (or, of course, that nasty Eighteenth, either). What we did have was the Commerce Clause. We know now that the Commerce Clause lets Congress regulate the instrumentalities and channels of interstate commerce as well as things that, in aggregate, are economic in nature and have an effect on interstate commerce. Well and good. Related to the commerce clause, however, is what’s been dubbed the “Dormant Commerce Clause.” That is, states can regulate things that Congress hasn’t but, in so doing, can’t discriminate against out-of-staters unless Congress says they can. This makes sense. It seems our Framers wanted us to live in the United States, and not a series of little countries that withheld their goods/services/resources or penalized other states for so doing. Anyway. The tricky part is that the Supreme Court has flipped back and forth in deciding whether alcohol is a “special” item exempt from Commerce Clause treatment. Could Washington, if it wanted, forbid out-of-state alcohol from being shipped in state while allowing full-blown production in state? Different answers, depending on the decade you ask the question.

So, go back to Pre-Pro. In 1847 in a series of cases known as The License Cases, the Supreme Court said, hey, alcohol is different and states were free from the restrictions of the Commerce Clause. But then in 1890, in Leisy v. Hardin, the Court struck down an Iowa law that confiscated alcohol shipped into Iowa if the alcohol lacked a proper permit. SCOTUS said that Congress was in charge of regulating interstate commerce, and if Congress hadn’t spoken, then states couldn’t. In response to this, Congress spoke, and passed the Wilson Act then eventually the Webb-Kenyon Act. The net effect of these acts was to basically give back to states the power to do whatever they wanted with respect to alcohol, whether discriminatory against out-of-staters or not.

Then, along came Prohibition. Everyone was “dry” on paper, but we all know about those zany flappers, the speakeasies, the booze that abounded underground. What States really didn’t like, though, was all the crime that went along with it. You had illegal distribution channels, and people like Al Capone vying for territory. No doubt about it, gangsters make for good movies, but States were not a fan. So, imagine the prospect of the Twenty-first Amendment from a State perspective. For years, alcohol was moving all over in ways that the State had zero control over. That booze was not being taxed. So, all of those underground trade networks out there stressed out states because, if they had to deal with grog, at least they could make some coin off of the whole situation. Apart from that, States were really worried about people drinking all the time. Like, all the time. Imagine seeing your people over-indulging with cheap whiskey, then heading off to the factory to operate heavy-duty machinery during the Industrial Revolution. Not a pretty combination, and one altogether too close in memory for State leadership now facing Post-Pro regulatory framework.

Another historic fun fact. You might have heard the term “Tied-house” thrown around. What’s that about? Well, back Pre-Prohibition the breweries figured out that rather than fight it out for tap share at every tavern in town, they could just open up their own tavern. They did, in droves, and some historians regale us with the consequences of all of that. You can imagine if a big out-of-town brewery opens up a tavern in a smaller town, then another big brewery does, then another, there’s not enough booze business to go around (or, if there is, the woman of the day were not fans). Consequently, some of those taverns turned to other forms of income, namely, entertainment of the illegal variety. States did not want to see this happen Post-Pro and they were also fearful that behemoth beverage producers would have so much cash, if they had tied-houses, they would be able to make all kinds of glitzy advertisements and everyone in town would be compelled to drink. Sort of a cute concern, when you think back.

At any rate, States were facing all of these competing concerns, with the realization that if they didn’t deal with it, they’d be back fighting all of the uglies they felt alcohol necessarily brought with it. The Twenty-first Amendment is on the horizon. What’d they do? States adopted the three-tier distribution system, and that’s what we’ll talk more about next time.

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Why You Should Care About Indiana’s Problematic Beer Regulations – Part 1 of 4.

Why should Indiana's beer laws matter to brewers across the states (and the globe)? Stick with us in this four-parter for some background, and why evenhanded laws are good for the brewing industry (and safe under the U.S. Constitution).
Why should Indiana’s beer laws matter to brewers across the states (and the globe)? Stick with us in this four-parter for some background, and why evenhanded laws are good for the brewing industry (and safe under the U.S. Constitution).

So, why’s a Seattle-based craft brewery law firm like Reiser Legal pontificating about Indiana beer laws? Actually, it’s because we represent Washington breweries that we care. And, no matter which brewers’ guild you belong to or which state of bountiful craft brews you call home, I’ll explain why this issue of federal constitutional law is worth your attention.

First, a little background. I’m an Indiana native. That means I grew up in a place where you couldn’t buy booze on a Sunday. Technically, you could buy it on a Sunday, but only if you (1) drove to a different state to get it or (2) were okay going to a bar or restaurant to enjoy some libations there. In other words, until 2010, you could not go into the market, buy brews, and bring them home on a Sunday.

What changed in 2010? In that magical year, the legislature made an exception for just about all craft breweries. (It’s no coincidence that in the years leading up to 2010, Indiana breweries were opening at unbelievably awesome rates.) The 2010 exception gave breweries a unique advantage. Suddenly, the only way to buy carryout beer on a Sunday was to stop by your local craft brewery.

As a consumer, the change in the law rocked. For starters, you no longer had to strategically plan your grocery shopping, planning ahead to stock up on swill before Sunday’s game. The change also affected the good folks of Ohio, as us Hoosiers no longer had to visit their glorious drive-through Sunday beer operations by force, but by choice. However, it wasn’t until, from a legal perspective, I started digging into federal constitutional issues affecting the brewing industry that I realized the problem with Indiana’s freshly-changed regulatory scheme.

Indiana’s scheme means that 100% of carryout beer sold on Sundays is made in the state. Put another way, out-of-state brewers have no access to Indiana’s booming Sunday carryout market. I thought about it, researched it, wrote about it, and put it all together into a Law Review Note called “Brewing Tension: The Constitutionality of Indiana’s Sunday Beer-Carryout Laws.” If you’re ambitious, you can read the note now. But, over the next couple of days, I’ll quickly (and painlessly) take you through why Indiana’s beer laws need deeper change, and why laws like these are bad for the entire industry—and might even affront our Constitution.

Stay with me this week as we talk a bit about beer history, including (1) things you might know, such as the bummer of a time that was Prohibition; or things you might not, such as (2) the crime that abounded during those “dry” years; and (3) the aims of the Twenty-first Amendment, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court throughout the decades. Along the way, I’ll cover some need-to-know background about the common three-tier distribution system, including how far states can go in regulating booze shipped into and out of the state. We’ll touch on the landmark case of Granholm v. Heald, some decisions in the 7th Circuit interpreting it, and we’ll wind up on why Indiana’s law, as it stands, might not be constitutional. Through it all, I’ll pass along key takeaways for those seeking change in their own states.

See you next time.

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