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.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: coffee, detroit, trademark, uspto


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. 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 thread ]

  2. 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 thread ]

  3. 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 thread ]

  4. 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 thread ]

  5. 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 thread ]

  6. 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 thread ]

  7. 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 thread ]

  8. icon
    Vidiot (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 7:17am

    Re:

    "Black Gold"... "Texas Tea"...

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

  9. 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 thread ]

  10. 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 thread ]

  11. 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 thread ]

  12. 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 thread ]

  13. 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 thread ]

  14. 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 thread ]

  15. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 1:26pm

    Re: On the other hand

    What would happen is Kentucky would sue you for using the name of their state without a license.

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

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2017 @ 1:45pm

    Re:

    > Could Party B sue the USPTO for negligence in inappropriately granting the mark...

    Sovereign Immunity.

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

  17. 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 thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2017 @ 4:04pm

    Re: Re:

    Might have a shot under the Federal Tort Claims Act though.

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

  19. 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 thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2017 @ 12:41pm

    Re:

    or maybe flint's water?

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

  21. 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 thread ]

  22. 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 thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2017 @ 7:00am

    Re: Re:

    Y’all come back now, y’hear?

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

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