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.