Lagunitas “IPA” Lawsuit and Lessons in Social Media

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When determining whether to file a lawsuit, the cost-benefit analysis must always include public reaction, which these days plays out almost instantly on social media.  But predicting public reaction is quite imprecise.  Case in point is Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s recent lawsuit against Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which was filed on Monday, January 12th and then voluntarily dismissed on Thursday, January 15th.

In the lawsuit, Lagunitas claimed that Sierra Nevada infringed numerous trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for several design-plus-word marks pertaining to its India Pale Ale, all of which feature  the words “Lagunitas IPA” that are variations on the above.   None of the registrations, however, are for the word mark “IPA” standing alone and many other brewers have trademark registrations for names of beer that include “IPA.” Recognizing this fact, Lagunitas further alleged that, “[w]hile other brewers have adopted the shorthand parlance of “IPA” to market their India Pale Ales, only Lagunitas is identified with the large, bold, black, centralized “IPA” lettering ….”

Claims for trademark infringement, unfair trade practices and unjust enrichment were alleged against Sierra Nevada premised on the following allegations:

[Sierra Nevada’s] proposed design uses all capital, large, bold, black “IPA” lettering in a font selection that is remarkably similar to the iconic Lagunitas design and, indeed, is the central and most prominent feature of the new Sierra Nevada design, emulating the iconic Lagunitas Family  of IPA Trademarks.  This proposed design even uses the kerning between the “P” and the “A” characters that is distinctive to the Lagunitas Family of IPA Trademarks….  Significantly, Sierra Nevada now appears to be making a radical departure from its traditional label designs which feature “IPA” lettering in much smaller text, usually preceded by another term (i.e., “Fresh Hop,” “Extra,” “Rye”, “Red,” etc.) of the same text size and which feature outdoor/nature scenes. Instead, … the proposed Hop Hunter IPA design is strikingly different from its prior imagery used with its India Pale Ales.

Lagunitas further alleged that the likelihood of confusion as to origin increases when the product is viewed at some distance and, moreover, that there’s a high likelihood of confusion as to “sponsorship or approval” between the companies because “Sierra Nevada is well-known in the craft brew industry for its collaboration with other brewers.”

But when the filing the lawsuit became publicized, Lagunitas was harshly criticized because it seemed focused on protecting the acronym “IPA”, which describes a type of beer.  As noted by CNBC:

The beer battle fell flat on social media.

“Really – Is this necessary?” tweeted @FW_Brewmaster.

“This is ridiculous, @lagunitasbeer should be ashamed,” added @mattmaceachem.

As for the logos creating confusion among consumers, @BeerMagazine tweeted, “The only thing confusing is this,” referring to the lawsuit.

“It was stunning actually, and by 10 o’clock in the morning I was reeling,” [the founder and CEO of Lagunitas, Tony] Magee said about the backlash online. ”  I went home at the end of the day feeling as if I’d run a marathon or been beaten up.”

Indeed, on February 13th, Magee sent the following tweets which began by defending the lawsuit and ended with the statement that the lawsuit would be withdrawn.

This is just a course of action we did not want to take. I attempted to work it out privately w/ SNB but not successful. Deeply saddened…

Today, January 13th 2015, has been the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery. Worst. Growing a biz involves defending a biz…

Defending a biz requires answers to Hard Questions. Q’s like: Are our Foundations Strong? Are our Flavors right? Are our Labels Defensible?

There r many Courts in the world. For me, over the last month, one Court was a series of rebuffed phone calls. Another was a court of law…

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.

I don’t know every answer beforehand, so I feel around for the edges and try to learn. Today I was seriously schooled & I heard you well…

Tomorrow mornin we’ll Drop the Infringement Suit & get back to answering other Questions. I don’t think I was wrong for wanting to know cuz…

I had to know the Answer, but the Answer came much sooner than I thought and in a different Court than I thought it would. Can I say thanks?

As he wisely notes, there are various “courts” in which business disputes are considered and judged.  Because trademark rights represent the goodwill of a company, sometimes efforts to defend trademarks can, ironically, do more than good to that goodwill.

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