Trademarks, Schrademarks

I'm going to hazard a guess and say that most people don't really care to learn about trademark law.

Can I blame them? No. Sounds terribly boring.

But if you've read this far you probably know what I'm going to talk about, so my hat's off to you for being a refreshingly enthusiastic and unpredictable human being. You're super.

It's been in the news lately, this unfortunate intellectual property butting of beer-industry brains, and I'd like to take a closer look at things. But first of all...

What the heck am I talking about?

From Wikipedia:

In principle, trademark law, by preventing others from copying a source-identifying mark, reduces the customer’s costs of shopping and making purchasing decisions, for it quickly and easily assures a potential customer that this item—the item with this mark—is made by the same producer as other similarly marked items that he or she liked (or disliked) in the past. At the same time, the law helps assure a producer that it (and not an imitating competitor) will reap the financial, reputation-related rewards associated with a desirable product. The law thereby encourages the production of quality products and simultaneously discourages those who hope to sell inferior products by capitalizing on a consumer’s inability quickly to evaluate the quality of an item offered for sale.
— Qualitex v. Jacobson Products, 514 U.S. 159 (Supreme Court 1995).

Basically, trademark law protects a couple of things: the consumer's buying experience, and the trademark owner's product's financial potential and reputation. A dispute generally occurs when two entities have a similar product with a similar or identical logo, name or mark.

One of the more famous cases in the craft beer world was that of Firestone Walker's Abacus. Abacus was, (and is still, only under a different name) their big, barrel-aged barley wine. ZD Wines in Napa Valley had been selling a Cabernet Sauvignon under the name Abacus since 1999. Since they're both in the California alcoholic beverage industry, ZD thought it would be too confusing for their consumers and it was decided that Firestone would rename their barley wine. Now their "Sucaba," (Abacus spelled backwards) is the official name of the beer.

And this I get. What I understand about trademark law is that if you're in a similar region with a similar product it's probably best to just pick a different name, go on an epic re-branding campaign and do us all a big favor.

However, not everyone plays nice, even in the craft beer industry. Oh, sure. We'd all like to believe that it's 100% collaborative and supportive. My own rose-colored glasses are a little thick these days, I'll admit. So when a local brewery has to go on the defense against its own home city, things get a little weird. But it IS the city of Portland. And, you know, Portland is weird.

This is all over one little icon that Old Town Brewing has had trademarked since 2012. It's the image of a white stag, from an iconic Portland sign.


And here's what the sign looked like when it was installed in 1940, and it's update in 1959, respectively:

Click the image above to know more than you ever wanted to about the damn sign.

Click the image above to know more than you ever wanted to about the damn sign.

The City of Portland has the rights to use the white stag on almost everything...except, because of Old Town's trademark, any beer-related products. It also can't receive any licensing fees from other beer companies, like, say...AB InBev. And its pissed about that. So pissed, in fact, it keeps going back to the federal trademark office to attain permission, despite being shot down time and time again.

And now, here we are. The City of Portland spending considerable resources to gain access to one simple little logo. The more I read, the more it seems like their motivation is money. For their own part, Old Town 's motivation seems to be more along the lines of preserving their brand and reputation, and potentially keeping it out of the hands of big beer. It's hard to say for sure. I just hope they have the time, talent and dollars to win this one.

Pay attention, though. This one's not likely to go away anytime soon.

More reading:

Lyra Penoyer