Published in Food/Agribusiness

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Larry Bell “unsettled” by anger toward Bell’s Brewery, personal attacks

BY Thursday, March 12, 2015 02:58pm

Bell’s Brewery Inc. Founder Larry Bell called me yesterday from Mesa, Ariz., where he was visiting with his distributor and catching an afternoon spring training game involving his beloved Chicago Cubs. Temperatures were in the mid-80s, and the Cubs had finally won their first game of the spring season after an 0-6-1 start.

But even sunshine and a Cubs win couldn’t lift Bell’s mood yesterday.

“This has not been my best day,” he said, his voice strained. “I’ve never been through anything like this [in my career]. I had to call up MLive and tell them, ‘You can’t have your readers calling me a D-bag online.’”

The reason for the name-calling: beer drinkers angry over a trademark dispute involving Bell’s and a tiny microbrewery in North Carolina.

Nearly one year after Bell’s filed a federal trademark opposition against Sylva, N.C.-based Innovation Brewing, a story this week in Innovation’s hometown paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, touched off a wave of heated discussion on social media among beer drinkers who felt Bell’s was bullying its smaller competitor.  

In 24 hours, the anger escalated from social media outrage and online petitions to bars shutting down their Bell’s taps and people making angry calls to Bell’s offices in Kalamazoo, according to Bell. He’s concerned for the safety of his employees and the business of his wholesalers in North Carolina.

“It’s very unsettling,” he said.

What’s also unsettling, Bell said, is that the trademark filing that gave rise to this incident is a “sort-of run-of-the-mill” issue in the fast-growing craft beer industry these days. The beer biz is a hotbed of litigation lately, as brewers scramble to brand their brews. Bell himself has been dealing with trademark issues since Bell’s was a small brewery, including a trademark action in the ’90s that forced him to change his flagship beer’s name from Solsun to Oberon.

“I’ve been going through this for a lot of years,” he said. “Trademarks are a complicated part of the law. If you don’t defend it, you lose it. And we’ve got a lot of equity invested in our marks ... trucks painted with our slogan, advertising, packaging.”

Whenever the Kalamazoo brewer discovers another company may have violated its intellectual property, Bell has a standard operating procedure: “In any of these situations, we don’t call the lawyers. We call the brewers,” he said.  

That’s exactly what Bell says his company did, asking Innovation Brewing owners Nicole Dexter and Chip Owen to withdraw their federal trademark request and offering them a financial settlement to cover their trademark registration expenses, legal fees and filing costs.   

“We said, ‘Look, we get it, you’re a small business.’ That’s why we offered to pay them a settlement.”

He was shocked by their counter-offer: an exorbitant, six-figure settlement.

“Basically, we called them and tried to be nice and play in the sandbox together,” he said, adding, “I guess they didn’t want to play in the sandbox.”

That was several months ago — the last he heard from Innovation Brewing's owners. So both sides lawyered up and began the arduous journey through the legal process. The matter is moving through the U.S. Trademark Trials and Board in Virginia, with a ruling expected this fall.  

Bell wants to be clear: He didn’t sue anyone.  Innovation Brewing filed for a federal trademark, and Bell’s opposed it.       

“We’re not trying to shut them down. We didn’t send them a cease and desist. We didn’t file a lawsuit. We are not going after them with any malice in any way,” he said, adding, “This is actually a sort-of run-of-the-mill trademark dispute.”

Typically, he said, Bell’s settles these disputes quickly with trademark coexistence agreements that allow both parties to use similar trademarks for marketing purposes. Bell’s has coexistence agreements with other companies both inside and outside the craft beer industry, he said. 

Bell’s offered Innovation Brewing’s owners numerous settlement options including coexistence agreements that would allow them to keep the name and run their business as-is, and even expand into other states, he said.

“In these situations, 9.9 times out of 10 you come to a coexistence agreement,” he said.  “This one we didn’t.”

Bell called me again this morning. He hadn’t slept a wink last night. He’s trying not to pay attention to social media, but admitted he’s checked in on the company’s Facebook page because he cares about what customers think.

He seemed saddened by the online anger toward the company as well as the personal attacks, like the guy who posted that he was taking pre-orders for a shirt that reads, “I Think Larry Bell is a Dick.”

“A lot of people are online asking me if I’ve forgotten my roots,” he said. “I have not forgotten my roots. I’ve worked extremely hard, beginning in the early days of craft beer.”

He recalled his first trademark dispute when he was the “little guy.”

“The old lawyer at the firm we worked with said, ‘We can fight this and it will cost you a million dollars, or we can negotiate an agreement.' I didn’t have a million dollars, so we negotiated.”

In retrospect, Bell said, the lawyer gave him good counsel.

“He was right,” he said.    

“This is an adult business and it’s not always emotionally nice. We try to handle disputes and decisions in an ethical, adult manner.  That’s all we can do.”

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