It’s the David and Goliath battle of the beer world. In February of this year, San Diego craft brewery Stone Brewing filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors, a subsidiary of the multinational Molson Coors Brewing Company. Their claim? That MillerCoors infringed upon the craft brewery’s trademark of the word “STONE”, which they have owned in association with beers and ales since 1998. Their case? According to Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch, the redesign of MillerCoors’ Keystone beer cans strategically isolates the text “STONE” in a way that is meant to confuse consumers. As Koch claims in a press release on the issue, “MillerCoors is threatening not only our legacy, but the ability for beer drinkers everywhere to make informed purchasing decisions.”
TrademarkInfringement.Sucks, so we’re breaking down the important elements of this case and expounding on its implications beyond the beer market.
Stone Brewing vs. MillerCoors
The back-and-forth between the two beer companies has been enlightening, particularly for anyone interested in the minutia of trademark law. Stone Brewing claims that MillerCoors has long been aware that Stone Brewing own the “STONE” mark, as the brewing heavyweight tried to register STONES with the USPTO in 2007, but were rejected due to the similarities between the two. In 2010, Stone Brewing sent a cease-and-desist to MillerCoors, but failed to follow up on it until now. In a video explaining his company’s choice to sue, Koch acknowledges that the gargoyle (their mascot) is “slow to anger,” perhaps a light-hearted explanation for the egregious delay.
However, this delay is not being taken as lightly by MillerCoors, who claim that Stone Brewing’s decision to act now is most likely a “clever publicity stunt”. They note in a rebuttal that the phrase “Stone” has long been used by consumers to refer to Keystone —even before Stone Brewing was founded. A spokesperson for MillerCoors stated that, “Since Keystone's debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used ‘Stone’ to refer to the Keystone brand and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process”.
Despite this, some still believe that Stone Brewing has a good case against MillerCoors. The reason being that Stone Brewing only has to prove the likelihood of consumer confusion, not provide actual proof of it happening. This is a pretty good defense against MillerCoors’ assertion that available data suggests consumers who bought Keystone Light were unlikely to have also bought any of Stone Brewing’s beers. However, the debate doesn’t end there. In determining the likelihood of confusion between the brands, the Court must assess a variety of factors, including:
- The strength of the mark
- Which marketing platforms are being used by each brand
- The proximity of the goods being sold
- The degree of care employed by the shopper
- The similarities between the two marks
The Implications of the Dispute
While we await the verdict, we can consider the implications of the conflict for other brands. What does this lawsuit mean in the trademark world beyond “big beer”? How can brands avoid finding themselves in similar squabbles? John B. Farmer of Leading-Edge Law Group has some good pointers:
- When branding or rebranding your product, steer clear of anything similar to a pre-existing trademark
- Be original and unique—imitation is not a form of flattery when it comes to trademarks
- Choose arbitrary or fanciful marks when possible rather than suggestive marks (which blatantly describe the product)
- Don’t wait to protect your mark when threatened—as evidenced in this case, waiting so long to act might damage Stone Brewing’s case
Trademark disputes can be tricky, costly and time-consuming. However, this shouldn’t stop brands from standing up for themselves when they feel their trademark is being threatened. When in doubt, learn from history. Read up on copyright and trademark cases like Bitcoin and Comic-Con to get a better understanding of what can happen if brand’s don’t adequately protect their trademark. When it comes to disputes of this nature, reputations are on the line, and there’s nothing more valuable to a brand than that.
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Photo Credits: Shutterstock / Ken Wolter, Shutterstock / DisobeyArt