March 20, 2004

Starbucks and Haidabucks

Geoff Pullum has pointed out that Starbucks' threat to sue the purveyors of Star Bock Beer for trademark infringement is likely to founder on the fact that Starbucks and Star Bock do not rhyme and are not all that likely to be confused. You might think that Starbucks would also have difficulty persuading a court that they are in the same business as the folks making beer; trademarks are only applicable within a particular type of business, and the coffee and beer trades are generally considered distinct. However, to my surprise, a check of the US Patent and Trademark Office database shows that the Starbucks Coffee people have also registered a trademark in the alcoholic beverages category, so it looks like it is only the confusability of Starbucks and Star Bock that will determine the matter.

Although Starbucks and Star Bock don't seem all that confusable to us, the Starbucks people have made legal threats in at least one case in which the allegedly infringing term was even more different from Starbucks' trademark. Last year Starbucks threatened to sue Haidabucks Café, a small café in Masset, British Columbia run by four Haida Indians. They called their place Haidabucks because buck is a local term for "young Indian man" and they are young Haida men. Haida and Star don't sound much alike. Furthermore, to quote Haidabucks' characterization, Haidabucks is:

A small café located in NW Canada - on an island, in a village of 700 inhabitants
Serves a full menu of tasty food and beverages at reasonable prices.
while Starbucks is a:
Publicly traded, global conglomerate with locations in metropolitan areas
Serves high-priced coffee, tea, and pastries.
The odds of anybody confusing the two are pretty small.

In this case, Starbucks eventually backed down as the result of the awful publicity it generated coupled with the support of Joseph Arvay, QC of Arvay Finlay, one of British Columbia's top lawyers, and Baldwin & Baldwin Business Solutions, whose owner was so outraged that he set up Haidabucks' web site gratis. I think there are two lessons here. One is that, as Geoff said, greedy corporations are trying to take over whole regions of the phonetosphere. The other is that sometimes the little guy does win, when people pull together to fight the kleptocrats.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 20, 2004 11:04 PM