Trademark

by Timothy Geigner


Filed Under:
coffee, detroit, trademark, uspto



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.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 5 Jan 2017 @ 6:20pm

    "Detroit Coffee" sounds like a euphemism for motor oil.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scote, 5 Jan 2017 @ 6:56pm

    I miss when you had to spell things funny to get a trademark so that the mark really was unique.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jan 2017 @ 8:51pm

    Grant 'em all and let the courts sort 'em out.

    - USPTO motto and why the lawyers love them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 5 Jan 2017 @ 8:53pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Brian56new (profile), 5 Jan 2017 @ 9:49pm

    Here's hoping

    Here's hoping the plaintif will choke on a pastrami sandwich on the day of court and go into a coma for 7 years, on the day after he forgot to pay his past due medical insurance premium.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 5 Jan 2017 @ 10:12pm

    Seriously

    Who the fuck wants to buy coffee from Detroit?

    While you're at it, might as well get your wine from Pittsburgh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Eponymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 7:26am

      Re: Seriously

      It's not like they grow the stuff in Seattle, friend.

      A local roasting/blending/packaging operation ensures that you get fresh product, plus it keeps the retail dollar local.

      I'm just down the road from the D, may well check these folks out. So, in answer to your question, me.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Eponymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 7:31am

      Re: Seriously

      Also, a quick check of their website shows that it's very reasonably priced coffee as well ($11/lb). While their tagline, "A Taste of Woodward" isn't the most encouraging (mmm, oil, asphalt, and despair), I'll be placing an order today to support them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 4:26am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 1:25pm

      Re:

      Sturgeon's Law says the metric should be "we rejected 90% of applications", but we get a rubber stamp instead.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 8 Jan 2017 @ 5:28am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2017 @ 9:02am

    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)?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 9:36am

    Part of the problem here is that if the USPTO will grant marks of this nature, they should all be fine if the marks are different. What happened to the days of many companies using the same popular or locale words in their names with no trouble at all?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 10:29am

    On the other hand

    What about names like "Kentucky Fried Chicken"? Could I open a store called "Kentucky Chicken" without people getting confused that I was affiliated with KFC?

    In this case, I think "Detroit Coffee" and "Detroit Bold Coffee Company" may be too similar.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Brian56new (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 3:15pm

    Doesn't a "Trademark" include the company's artwork/logo? Isn't that why we don't get confused by Coca-Cola and Pepsi cola? If you look at the said coffee company's logos no doubt to anyone with eyes that BOLD is the key differentiator.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stosh, 6 Jan 2017 @ 4:44pm

    Detroit Coffee...hmmm, does that mean it's formulated to add back any lead that may be filtered out of their water?!?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Brian56new (profile), 7 Jan 2017 @ 1:21pm

    Stosh, you must be a hilarious sometimes. Not this time though. I guess it's better to be a smart ass than a dumb ass. Or vice versa maybe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.