Trouble Brewing: Backlash over craft brewing trademark suits makes brand protection a tricky proposition.

By: Micah A. Smart

As craft breweries continue to grow from small niche businesses to serious economic leaders—they added $220 million to Maine’s economy in 2016—they increasingly face issues familiar to other growing industries like supply shortages, increased competition, and lately, trademark protection. For any business, ensuring that the target audience not only recognizes but connects with the brand can often be what turns a struggling company into an industry leader. According to Fred Frawley, intellectual property attorney at Eaton Peabody in Portland, “there’s no business that is more sensitive to making the right brand choices than craft brewing. With growing numbers of brewers and the proliferation of brewery names and beer choices, there are ample traps for the unwary.” This is evidenced by the numerous lawsuits filed in the past year by “small market” breweries including Lagunitas, which sued Sierra Nevada over “IPA” lettering that it considered too close to its own, and Coronado, which claimed that Elysian’s “Idiot Sauvin” was infringing on its “Idiot India Pale Ale.”

However, the perception of craft breweries as small businesses that should collaborate to further the recent beer renaissance presents a unique problem for brewers trying to carve out a market share. As both Lagunitas and Coronado discovered, many craft beer drinkers don’t want to see their favorite small breweries engaged in litigation they perceive as more suited to Big Beer. After some vicious online backlash, and no doubt fearing a correlative decline in sales, both companies dropped their suits shortly after filing.

On the other hand, as Portland’s own In’finiti Fermentation and Distillation found out, failing to protect your brand has its own drawbacks. That company recently changed its name to Liquid Riot Bottling Co. likely due in part to dilution and trademark issues from Infinity Brewing Company in nearby South Burlington, Vermont.

This has left many breweries with a tough choice: protect their brand against infringement and dilution while potentially alienating some customers, or risk losing brand recognition and a share of an increasingly crowded market. There are, after all, only so many hop puns to go around (Ninkasi Brewing’s “Tricerahops” is a personal favorite).

So what is a brewery to do? One option is collaboration; upon discovering that they both had a beer called “Salvation,” Avery and Russian River blended the two and called it “Collaboration Not Litigation.” But when collaboration won’t work, breweries should not hesitate to act to protect one of their most important assets.

Original Post – Maine Brew Guide