Trademark Dispute Between Coffee Companies Over 'Detroit' Trademark Demonstrates The USPTO's Carelessness

from the motor-city-mayhem dept

It bears repeating: far too many of the trademark disputes we cover here at Techdirt are in large part the fault of a USPTO all too willing to grant trademarks on terms that are overtly either broad or based on geography. One would hope that it went without saying that trademarks, designed to inform the public as to the source of the products they buy, cannot work to that end if the identifying marks are not specific or original within the marketplace. Yet the Trademark Office too often doesn’t seem to consider this when rubber-stamping applications.

For example, there is currently a trademark dispute going on between two coffee companies over the name of the city of “Detroit.”

A local company’s Detroit-branded java doesn’t jive with an East Coast entity that claims it was the early bird in the Motor City joe business.

But the target of the complaint insists the Dec. 22 lawsuit filed by New York-based Detroit Coffee Co. is nothing more than a shakedown.

“This is a Wall Street-versus-Woodward type of mentality,” said A.J. O’Neil, owner of Hazel Park-based Detroit Bold Coffee Co. “They think the little guy will fold.”

Detroit Coffee Co., a Michigan LLC with a New York City address, filed a complaint alleging trademark infringement against Detroit Bold. It demands a jury trial in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

It’s only through the absurdity of granting a trademark on something like “Detroit Coffee” to begin with that you can generate a reality that includes a New York City business suing a Detroit-based business over the name of a city combined with the name of a common product. When considering trademarks that incorporate geographic names, the bar for infringement is supposed to be much higher. And, should the case move forward, perhaps that higher standard will be applied, but it’s still worth considering whether a trademark like “Detroit Coffee” ought ever to have been approved in the first place. After all, whatever the resolution in court ends up being, the monetary burden on such legal action isn’t meager.

“It’s not like I have all this extra income to hire a big legal team and go (to New York) to fight this,” he said. “Those folks in New York are conjuring up something that at best has no merit.”

Adding to the strangeness of this particular case is that Detroit Coffee allowed its trademark to lapse until 2016, when it re-registered after Detroit Bold Coffee trademarked its two logos for “Detroit Bold Coffee Company.”

O’Neil told The News he and his attorney, Mark Schneider, haven’t seen any evidence that Detroit Coffee actually sells any coffee under the Detroit Coffee name, or has ever sold coffee or other merchandise branded with that name. The trademarks the company pulled in the early 2000s were dead at the time Detroit Bold registered new logos bearing “Detroit Bold Coffee Co.” in early 2016, according to trademark office records.

Detroit Coffee renewed trademarks on the “Detroit Coffee” name for use on brewed coffees, teas and beverages on April 14, 2016, roughly two months after O’Neil registered two logos bearing the words “Detroit Bold Coffee Company.”

If true, that would seem to leave Detroit Bold Coffee in the clear, except it still would have to take on the burden of the court case. Which means this is all still ultimately the fault of a USPTO too willing to liberally approve trademarks.

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Comments on “Trademark Dispute Between Coffee Companies Over 'Detroit' Trademark Demonstrates The USPTO's Carelessness”

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23 Comments
Mononymous Tim (profile) says:

This Blatant Bullying episode made possible by.. the USPTO.

Hey big corporations, need a trademark on a common word or phrase that you can use to bully around the little guy on the grounds that the general public is too stupid to tell the difference? Well, look no further than your friends at the USPTO!

Tune in next time when we rehash the same story with different actors, brought to you by.. the USPTO!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

And no one can get much traction with suggesting perhaps the system needs reform because it is a scared cow we can not touch (unless it is to expand mark holders rights).

It doesn’t cost much to get a shitty mark that shouldn’t have happened, but the cost to get that mark thrown out is much to high. In the mean time the mark becomes a great weapon to crush competition (even if you aren’t doing anything in that market) and to extract nice sums of cash.

It would be nice if the USPTO would get its shit together & stop issuing overly broad things for the courts to sort out later. The metric shouldn’t be see we approved 10,000 marks this month… it should be we approved 5,000 good marks and rejected 5,000 troublesome ones.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Much like with patents, the standards for issuing and overturning trademarks need to be of comparable difficulty and expense.

If it’s easy and inexpensive to get a patent or a trademark issued, it needs to be similarly easy and inexpensive to challenge the patent or trademark and get it overturned.

If it’s difficult and/or expensive to challenge a patent or trademark and get it overturned, it needs to be similarly difficult and/or expensive to get the patent or trademark issued in the first place.

(The reverse is also true in both cases, of course.)

If it’s difficult and/or expensive to get one issued, but easy and inexpensive to get one overturned, you end up with people who have a legitimate case for having one but either can’t get one or can’t keep it. That’s the perspective behind the justifications for our current setup.

If it’s easy and inexpensive to get one issued, but difficult and/or expensive to get one overturned, you end up with the sort of thing Techdirt so often reports on: overly-broad patents and/or trademarks, used against people who have a legitimate case for using the patented and/or trademarked thing, but who can’t afford to fight to get the use approved. This is approximately (and measuring difficulty and expense in relative terms) the setup we have today.

Anonymous Coward says:

USPTO grants a mark they shouldn’t to Party A.
Party A then sues Party B for infringement.
Party B incurs costs of defense.

Could Party B sue the USPTO for negligence in inappropriately granting the mark, since doing so has caused financial damage to the company (in defending a case that should never have happened)?

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