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'Dumb Starbucks': Smart Parody or Infringement?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on February 10, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The appearance of a "Dumb Starbucks" store in Los Angeles has drawn the ire of the real Starbucks corporation, demanding its "dumb" counterpart stop using its name.

On Friday, "Dumb Starbucks Coffee" opened in a strip mall in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood, serving "Dumb Frappuccinos" and "Wuppy Duppy Lattes." The store is a pretty decent parody of the real Starbucks, but according to the Los Angeles Times, Starbucks corporate isn't laughing.

Can "Dumb Starbucks" use the Starbucks name without getting nailed in court?

'Dumb Starbucks' a Dumb Move?

No one is certain yet what the actual intent behind "Dumb Starbucks" is, but rumors have been flying around the store's origin. According to the Times, the current theories include "a marketing ploy, an art installation, or perhaps the work of a comedian."

If it's a joke, the mastermind behind "Dumb Starbucks" may have picked the wrong company to satirize. Starbucks is notoriously humorless about attempts -- no matter how small -- to use its names for parody. Only a month ago, the bean-brewing giant told a St. Louis-area brewery to cease and desist selling its "Frappicino" beer (the similar-sounding Starbucks coffee is spelled "Frappuccino.")

Whereas Starbucks has only briefly ventured into the beer market, "Dumb Starbucks" is pointedly only selling those products that Starbucks sells: coffee, pastries, and even easy listening CDs ("Dumb Jazz Standards," for example).

Zack Hutson, a spokesman for the original Starbucks, bluntly stated that "[Dumb Starbucks] cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark," the Times reported.

Trademark and Parody

Trademarks like the "Starbucks" name serve to both identify and distinguish one good from another and allow consumers to easily identify a good's source. Trademark infringement cases typically rest on whether the item or advertisement in question is likely to confuse consumers about where a company's goods come from.

When a parody of a famous brand is put out on the market, the big companies behind those brands have often been successful in using trademark law to shut the parody down. Because parodies need to mirror the original enough to make a statement, courts have historically ruled in favor of big corporations arguing that the parody either confused consumers or diluted the effect of the original trademark.

"Dumb Starbucks" was still in business as of Monday afternoon, but it seems likely that a trademark-related order will close its doors soon.

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