from the sigh dept
We talk a lot about silly trademark disputes here at Techdirt. But the really infuriating trademark stories tend to deal with not just overly broad terms that have been granted marks by the USPTO, but terms that are so broad because they are simple geographic identifiers. The other aspect of trademark disputes that can be face-palm inducing are claims of confusion that are laughable in the extreme. The dispute we're about to discuss mixes both of these, supercharging the frustration to dangerous levels.
Schnebly Redland runs a winery in Homestead, Florida, some forty miles south of Miami. Part of the Schnebly Redland Winery's business includes a brewery, called the Miami Brewing Company. Despite the already broad nature of that brewery's name, it has a trademark in place for its business. In Doral, Florida, some fifteen miles away from Miami, is M.I.A. Beer Company. While both companies have existed cordially together for more than a year, Schnebly recently fired off a cease and desist notice to M.I.A. over trademark concerns, demanding that the latter cease using its name within thirty days and to provide records, within two weeks, of any and all profits it had made.
If Leon didn't comply, the letter states, he'd be "liable for compensatory damages" and "ill-gotten gains," as well as court costs and attorneys' fees. According to Leon, the document came just days before M.I.A.'s anniversary party and was a complete surprise. Both Leon and Peter Schnebly served on the board of the Miami Brewers Alliance, and Leon considered him a friend. Three years earlier, Leon says, Schnebly alluded to potential problems with the similarity of the names and both had a gentlemen's agreement, trusting they wouldn't interfere with each other's business.
"Quite honestly, it felt like a big stab in the back," Leon says. "I'm like, really? It was pretty shocking."
And seemingly dumb, too. The trademark protections offered for the use of a geographic identifier, such as "Miami", are far more thin than a more creatively inspired trademark would be. Thin enough that it strains the mind to think that confusion could be winningly alleged between the terms "Miami Brewing Company" and "M.I.A. Beer Company", even before we get into the many potential meanings of the latter's acronym.
Leon immediately called Schnebly, who said the likeness of the names is too confusing for customers. Leon disagreed because "M.I.A." could mean any number of things, such as "missing in action" or Miami International Airport.
Indeed. In fact, while MIA is a common shortening for the city of Miami in certain circles, such as on score overlays for sports broadcasts, the acronym M.I.A. is probably more commonly associated with "missing in action" than it is anything else. Even with the proximity to Miami likely being a factor in the name, for a trademark based so heavily on a geographic area, it seems likely that the differences between M.I.A. Beer company and Miami Brewing Company would be enough to ward off the claims. The packaging and logos for each company, it should be noted, are distinct and not at all similar, making customer confusion a non-issue.
Yet Leon must certainly be extra annoyed by all of this, having gone through this kind of trademark tussle once before.
Leon became somewhat of a trademark expert when he started M.I.A. Brewing — originally called Most Wanted Brewery. He changed the name after discovering that Kansas City-based High Plains Distillery makes a Most Wanted vodka that could've caused a potential conflict.
Such is the state of things in the craft brewing world, unfortunately.