Trademark Infringement? …Maybe Just Barley.

By Alex Kelley

January 26, 2015

You may have heard about the trademark controversy that bubbled up between Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada. Lagunitas sued Sierra Nevada, alleging that the placement and size of “IPA” on the bottle of the newest Sierra Nevada offering was too similar to the classic Lagunitas style. See for yourself:

IPAvsIPA

The frothy public outcry that erupted led to Lagunitas dropping the suit, as many beer enthusiasts noted that no one company should own the rights to the use of “IPA.” And those people are right, but that’s not the whole story as it pertains to trademark law in this case, and here’s why. If it were merely the use of the letters themselves, Lagunitas would never have a case (and their lawyers surely knew this). Verbal trademarks, sometimes called wordmarks, cannot be defended if they are generic, literal descriptions of a product. Hence, Starbucks can’t trademark Frappé or Coffee or Café.

And the principle holds true despite the fact that Lagunitas claims to be the first company to shorten India Pale Ale to IPA. Even if that is a Lagunitas original acronym, IPA is still a generic, descriptive term like, idk, DVD or CPR. Anyways, had Lagunitas wanted to defend the acronym as proprietary, they would have had to have started doing so much earlier, at the first instance of the now widely used term by a competitor.

The real meat of the suit lies not in the letters themselves but their depiction on the bottle. The chunky “IPA” across the middle of the label are what Lagunitas claims it has a right to defend and what really started the bar fight to begin with. And as with any trademark suit, the answer lies in the consumer: the only metric for infringement is if the court decides that consumers could plausibly be confoozed by the logos, therefore giving an economic advantage to the defendant, or disadvantage to the accuser. In an eerily similar case, courts ruled in Lagunitas’ favor when they sued Kneed Deep Brewery for the same reason in 2012. But this instance is different, and less obvious. Here the label is colorful, the letters bisected by the green name of the beer, Hop Hunter. Could it be confusing to consumers? Tough call.

Personally, I do think Lagunitas had a case. The biggest, most notable parts of the label are very similar, and at a glance (or from afar), I, a verifiable drinker, could have thought the Sierra Nevada offering was from Lagunitas. Of course, feel free to disagree in the comments! But now, unfortunately Lagunitas has a bigger issue: they tapped a shaken keg of scorn with the suit, and came out soaked and worse for wear. It seems that consumers most always take the side of the underdog, the less “corporate” of the players in trademark cases (like in the Disney vs Deadmau5 suit, where Disney alleged that Deadmau5’s ears were too similar to the iconic Mickey Mouse Ears, or the Dumb Starbucks fiasco). In this instance, too, Lagunitas’ litigiousness was seen as bullying and nitpicking, and support for Sierra Nevada was shouted from their namesake mountaintops (and, of course, on Twitter). Now the only question is, how does Lagunitas recover their own image in the eyes of consumers turned off by what they saw as bullying from one beloved brewery to another? Well, they could wait until it blows over—that always works. Or they could be proactive, and launch a special beer with the purpose of apologizing to IPA fans everywhere (like what Axe tried to do with Peace). Call the beer Whoops, or rather, Atonement. Yes, that’s good, Atonement IPA, for when your consumers excoriate you for being too corporate and miserly. Heralding a new age of libation rather than litigation, spirits rather than mean-spiritedness, shots on the house rather than shots fired! So fill up your tankards, everyone. Just be sure, Lagunitas, to not borrow aspects of Sierra Nevada’s logo for parity.

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