Trademark Dispute Between Brewery And Winery Over Northstar Brand

from the drinking-games dept

Spend five minutes going through the exploding-number of posts we’ve done over the past two years about trademark scuffles in the craft brewery industry and one thing will become abundantly clear: craft alcohol has a huge trademark problem. Interestingly, craft brewers had had a traditionally amicable set of unwritten rules when it came to trademark disputes, often times choosing to work direclty with each other to find agreeable resolutions and generally being quite awesome to each other when this sort of thing came up. Under those conditions, craft brewing has exploded in popularity and the number of brewers in the United States has likewise exploded. These past two years have seen a departure from the awesomeness of the past, as trademark disputes have become more common.

But the latest trademark dispute involving a craft brewery is going to turn this into a whole different animal, as a brewery and a winery are bickering over the term “Northstar.”

A Washington state wine producer this week filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder’s Twisted Pine Brewing Company, alleging trademark infringement and other unfair practices. The suit revolves around the local brewery’s award-winning Northstar Imperial Porter, which Ste. Michelle Wine Estates says infringes on its Northstar-brand wine by using the same name. The specific complaint, filed Thursday in Seattle, includes allegations of federal trademark infringement, federal unfair competition, unfair competition under Washington State Common Law, Washington state consumer protection violation and common law trademark infringement.

I can’t recall whether I did so in public, but I’ve been telling my fellow Techdirt writers for over a year now that the USPTO needed to get out in front of this exact situation by drawing a distinction between the wine and beer industries. This situation is the reason why. Now that craft breweries are becoming as numerous and popular as the plethora of United States wineries, this clash of brands and terms had to happen. Had a bright line been drawn between these two very distinct industries, which overlap very rarely (winemakers don’t often also make beer as a matter of percentages), this suit could have been tossed immediately. Instead, we’re forced to ask a really dumb question: would the kind of person likely to buy Twisted Pine’s Northstar Imperial Porter be confused into thinking they were buying something from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates because they offer a Northstar-branded wine?

No, they wouldn’t. Nobody has ever gone out looking for a specific wine brand and wondered if that brand also sold beer. Conversely, nobody has ever gone out to buy a porter brew and wondered if the brewery bothered to make wine for some reason. That both companies sell alcohol doesn’t matter any more than the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Blackhaws are both sports teams: they operate in two different markets and industries. As Brendan Palfreyman, an attorney involved in the alcohol industry, notes, this is all going to come down to the question of how similar wine and beer are.

“Often times, an important issue in these types of disputes is the relatedness of the goods, because, in order to find trademark infringement, courts will look to not only how similar the trademarks are, but also how similar the goods here. Here, a key issue will likely be whether the court finds that beer and wine are ‘related goods’ for trademark purposes.”

They shouldn’t be, period, paragraph. Wine and beer are as distinct as bottled water and soda. Perhaps a ruling in this case will put us on the road to a firm distinction. The craft brewery industry has enough of a trademark problem as it is.

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Companies: ste. michelle wine estates, twisted pine brewing company

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Comments on “Trademark Dispute Between Brewery And Winery Over Northstar Brand”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I’m not sure that the average person draws that much distinction between the two.”

I’m pretty sure that the average person who drink beer or wine does, though. This is anecdotal, of course, but the casual drinkers I know tend to stick to one thing (beer, wine, or liquor) consistently. They draw a strong distinction between them. The more serious drinkers know their wineries, breweries, and distilleries well enough that they wouldn’t be confused.

A lot depends on the particulars, though. Are the companies using similar logos or labels, for instance? That would mean a lot more than just sharing the word “northstar”.

Drawoc Suomynona (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The designs don’t seem to have anything in common…

Agree completely about the ability of drinkers on various levels to discern what’s what, but on the retail level, and even for promotions in bars and restaurants, these products share advertising space, and they are, to some degree, competing for the same “share of stomach”. That would suggest they are related goods. Channels of trade is an element that will be consider, along with the sophistication of the user.

Bt Garner (profile) says:

Wine and beer are as distinct as bottled water and soda

Have to disagree here, or maybe not. Consider the Wine Cooler — for sales purposes, most wine coolers are labelled (and sold) as beers, having dropped the “wine” portion of their name years ago. So the distinction between wine and beer does have some grey area, and I can understand why a winery with a trademark would be concerned about “another alcoholic beverage” with the same mark. Just like I can understand why “Royal Crown” would be concerned about someone selling “Royal Crown Flavored Water.” In today’s market the distinction between flavored water and sodas is pretty thin, as it is between alcoholic beverages.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Consider the Wine Cooler — for sales purposes, most wine coolers are labelled (and sold) as beers, having dropped the “wine” portion of their name years ago.”

I’ve never seen this — and in the US, anyway, this would invite FDA sanction. Generally, the FDA requires that if you’re going to label it as “beer”, it must be a “malt beverage”. Although in 2014, they expanded things a bit so that alternative non-malt “beers” made with malt substitutes like sorghum, rice or wheat can be labelled as “beer” in certain circumstances.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: (John Fenderson @0812)

1) I’ve seen ‘coolers’ stocked with beer in some stores, so can understand where some confusion could result.

2) Several years ago I saw an energy drink’s shelf label stating “this is not a malt beverage”. Said drink was labeled as having .005% alcohol content. It was stocked next to the beer. Found out the manufacturer was trying to avoid liquor license issues because of the alcohol content. That didn’t work in some jurisdictions; only liquor licensees could sell that drink.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wine and beer are as distinct as bottled water and soda.

So you would be okay with a Northstar water and a Northstar soda? No one company would ever bottle both. Right?

You know what is distinct? Cars and motorcycles. No one company would make both. Right? If it is just transportation, then it is also just alcohol.

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