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Are Trademark Disputes Brewing in the Craft Beer Industry?

The craft beer industry may be ripe for trademark disputes due to the increasing number of breweries, limited number of beer-related puns, and large number of small-scale operations.

Trademark is an important but often overlooked area of the law for new startups and small businesses. Many entrepreneurs believe that merely registering a company with a state as an LLC or Corporation secures trademark rights in the name or brand, while others assume they can secure protection by maintaining a website or social media presence. It is true that each of these steps might help expand protection, but neither will definitively establish the right to prevent others from using a particular mark or independently bestow rights on a company. The lack of understanding has become especially problematic in the expanding market for craft beer, where the exploding number of breweries, limited number of beer-related puns, and large number of small-scale operations have created a veritable minefield of potential trademark issues.

Limited Number of “Punforgettable” Trademarks

One issue stems from the desire to utilize existing pop culture and media to create attention grabbing, punforgettable (see what I did there?) trademarks. “Hoptimus Prime,” “The Empire Strikes Bock,” and “Harry Porter” are certainly memorable, but trading on protected intellectual property and brands can engender lawsuits from big companies with vast resources. These companies are even more likely to bring suits against breweries now that there is some precedent for licensing out popular intellectual property to beer labels (see Game of Thrones branded beer here. 

Local Nature of Early-stage Breweries

A second issue is more problematic because it is difficult to foresee and thus less preventable. The foundation of a trademark infringement claim is customer confusion, and the likelihood of confusion predictably increases when more participants join the market. But when starting out, the primary concern of a small brewery is brewing good beer, and trademark registration is probably doesn’t even enter the mindset of young entrepreneurs trying to keep costs as low as possible. So while a brewery in Oregon may create its own mark independently and believe it to be original, there is no guarantee that a brewery in Massachusetts hasn’t been using the same mark for its own beer. The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many players in the craft beer space, it can be difficult to determine whether someone else is using a mark even if you take the time to search beforehand.

How to Help Protect Yourself

A trademark can be a word, symbol, phrase, design, logo, product packaging, or some combination. The essential requirement is that the mark be used as source designator, so that customers associate the mark with a particular brand or company. For example, Budweiser’s trademarks include its crowned logo and “king of beers” slogan.  Both of these trademarks have been associated with the Budweiser brand, so that when a customer sees them they assume some relationship to Budweiser. For small breweries without the budget for a trademark attorney, the best option to test the availability of a desired mark is to scour the web. First, search the free trademark database and perform a general Google search including your trademark and related terms like “beer,” “brew,” “IPA,” etc. Beer rating sites like beeradvocate.com, which features over 93,000 beer brands, can also be a useful resource for assessing what marks are already being used in the market.

Unfortunately, it may be impossible to know exactly which marks are being used in a fairly regional industry. Since beer can’t generally be sold and shipped to customers across the web, common law trademark protection without registration is far more common, and small breweries may have local clout that doesn’t transcend regions. Still, by performing a few simple searches and conducting due diligence early on, craft beer makers could avoid a lot of potentially ugly legal disputes down the road if business expands and conflicts arise. When thinking long term in any industry, having a memorable mark is great, but avoiding legal disputes is probably better.

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