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Paul Zimmerman

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Some Things Just Can’t Be Settled Over a Beer

The craft brewing industry is focused on its beer, not the courtroom. Indeed, the culture within the space is one of collaboration and compromise, which is why very few beer makers sue over trademark issues, In many ways, this is what makes the craft brewing space – and its product—so special. But despite the spirit of cooperation within their world, there is a time for craft brewers to throw down and litigate—or, at the very least, to issue cease and desist letters in the wake of trademark violations. The question is, when is a more aggressive stance necessary?

The short answer is: when a brewery’s core business is threatened, as was the case in a recent dispute between 3 Daughters and Saugatuck Brewing over the Beach Blonde Ale trademark. 3 Daughters went to great lengths to successfully obtain its mark, and has since gone toe-to-toe with Saugatuck to protect it, given the mark’s importance to 3 Daughters’ business. For its part, Saugatuck, at least on the surface, seems to have been a bit nefarious when it comes to changes it made to packaging design immediately prior to launching a competing blonde ale in Florida—changes that appear meant to confuse craft brew consumers. Indeed, it is not surprising that Saugatuck actions did not yield the type of collaboration or compromise typical of the industry. You be the judge.

Another interesting example is the pending lawsuit between Stone Brewing and MillerCoors for trademark infringement. Stone Brewing is one of the leaders in the craft brewing space and has, in the past, shown a willingness to collaborate with competitors rather than turn to litigation to resolve disputes. Yet, Stone Brewing has sued MillerCoors in connection with the labeling variation of the latter’s Keystone brand because “Stone” as a trademark is at the very essence of Stone Brewing’s business—not to mention the fact that Keystone beer is perhaps the antithesis of Stone Brewing’s product in terms of reputation. It seems clear that Stone Brewing has everything to lose from its trademark being affiliated with a “Big 3” light ale. Consequently, the legal avenue is and was the proper vehicle for Stone Brewing to protect its mark and good name.

Without question, the cooperative and conciliatory nature of the craft brew business is admirable. That being said, there is a place for the occasional courtroom battle.

This blog post is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.