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Wednesday, 11 March 2015 10:32

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK: Reaction pours in over Bell’s Brewing trademark action against N.C. microbrewery

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EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK: Reaction pours in over Bell’s Brewing trademark action against N.C. microbrewery MiBiz photo

Nearly a year after Bell’s Brewing Inc. filed a federal trademark opposition against a small microbrewery in Sylva, N.C, the Kalamazoo-based company has found itself in the middle of a negative social media storm.

In the filing, Bell’s alleges that Innovation Brewing’s name could damage Bell’s advertising slogan, “bottling innovation since 1985,” which is unregistered but has been in use since 2009. The filing also alleges that Innovation’s name is too similar to Bell’s registered trademark “inspired brewing.”

While the trademark action was filed April 14, 2014 and motions continue to be filed as recently as March 9 of this year, it’s just started to make headlines thanks to an interview with the owners of Innovation Brewing that was published in the Asheville Citizen-Times this week.

The news report, which was also syndicated in the Detroit Free Press yesterday — the two publications are owned by Gannett — touched off a wave of discussion on social media from self-proclaimed Bell’s fans who felt the company was bullying its much smaller competitor. 

[RELATED:  Bell's founder "unsettled" by anger toward company, personal attacks]

Bell’s brewed about 310,000 barrels of beer last year, while Innovation Brewing made only about 500 barrels, according to the Free Press report.

In response, Bell’s posted the following message on its Facebook page late Tuesday evening: “We hear and appreciate everyone’s comments about a trademark issue with Innovation Brewing. We are doing our best to continue working through this as amicably as possible and are hopeful we can find a mutual resolution. Out of respect for the legal part of this process that we are now in, we will decline commenting further.”

The case is reminiscent of a trademark infringement lawsuit that Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas Brewing filed against Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada Brewing over an IPA logo. However, Lagunitas quickly dropped that lawsuit amid a firestorm of reaction from angry customers, according to reports

In a series of tweets, Lagunitas owner Tony Magee said the backlash resulted in “the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery.”

“Today was in the hands of the ultimate court; The Court of Public Opinion and in it I got an answer to my Question: Our IPA’s TM has limits,” Magee tweeted at the time.

The Bell's case, however, is a trademark action – not a lawsuit – since the company is not seeking damages and just wants to protect its trademark, a spokesperson said. 

When larger companies police their trademark rights by suing smaller companies, it might seem heavy handed, but there’s often an ulterior legal motive at work, said David Marr, an intellectual property lawyer at the law firm Clark Hill, PLC

Typically, the larger companies in these David-and-Goliath type suits don’t want to be a giant harassing smaller competitors, but if they ever have to go against a larger competitor, they need to be able to show how strong the trademark is, he said. 

“And one of the ways to show how strong your mark is by showing the enforcement efforts and policing efforts that you’ve made,” he said. 

Bell’s itself has been a small brewer on the other side of a trademark issue. In 1998, the Kalamazoo brewer changed the name of its Solsun wheat beer to Oberon, following legal action by Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, a Mexican brewer that made a beer named El Sol – Spanish for “The Sun.” 

Oberon is now Bell’s top-selling beer and best-known brand.

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Editor Brian Edwards contributed to this report. 

This story has been updated from a previous version to correct that Sierra Nevada is headquartered in Chico, Calif., not San Diego. It was also corrected to note that Bell’s filing was a trademark action, not a lawsuit, since the company is not seeking damages. 
Read 13868 times Last modified on Friday, 13 March 2015 10:55

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