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Starbucks v. Craft Beer

Starbucks v. Craft Beer

I’m always intrigued when the craft beer and trademark worlds collide. Starbucks has been accused of bullying a small craft brewery – did they do their research, or act too hastily?

“Frappicino” Beer?

Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Missouri received a cease and desist letter from Starbucks alleging that they were using the mark FRAPPICINO for beer – a word mark which is, clearly, confusingly similar to Starbucks’ own FRAPPUCINO. Starbucks based their claim on the use of FRAPPICINO in connection with one of Exit 6’s beers by three users on the craft beer website and application Untappd (full disclosure: I have been known to use that application from time to time.) Jeff Britton, the owner of Exit 6, posted the c&d letter on the Exit 6 Facebook page, along with his colorful response (which can be seen here). He claimed that they had never actually used the name FRAPPICINO, and that the beer had simply been named that by his three customers on Untappd. He humorously referred to Starbucks’ mark as “the F-word” and sent Starbucks a check for $6, covering his profits from those three beers.

The case caught on with the national media, including features on NPR and ABC News.

A Starbucks spokesperson responded to the controversy via an interview with the International Business Times, stating, in part:

In this case, we respectfully requested that Exit 6 Pub and Brewery refrain from using the term “Frappiccino,” which differs by only one letter from our Frappuccino product. We appreciate that Exit 6 Pub and Brewery respected our request. Trademark disputes are handled on a case-by-case basis, and we always prefer to resolve them informally and amicably. In fact, virtually all of our trademark disputes are acknowledged and respected without any legal action.

While I don’t have a problem with Starbucks enforcing its trademark rights, sending this kind of cease and desist letter might not have been advisable in this case. Exit 6 has received a lot of publicity, and, in the view of some commentators, at least, Starbucks came off like a bully. Certainly, Starbucks had the resources to investigate whether or not Exit 6 was actually using the mark FRAPPICINO. And why send a cease and desist letter when this matter could have been resolved with a phone call?

In the social media era, and particularly for large, consumer-facing companies who wish to protect their trademark rights, it’s important to consider the potential consequences of each and every cease and desist letter. The more friendly your approach, the less likely that you will be painted as a bully. As a trademark lawyer, I can look at a c&d letter and know that it’s mostly legalese – but as a small business owner, the same letter might look like a scary, threatening nastygram from some big-city law firm.

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