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Lagers and Legal Lessons: What You Can Learn From Recent Beer Lawsuits

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 28, 2019

Having the occasional beer is usually a relaxing experience. But it turns out cold ones can lead to some hotly contested litigation. Especially when it comes to marketing. As the number of breweries explodes from coast-to-coast, the competition for beer drinkers is leading to more legal battles, over everything from packaging, to Super Bowl ads.

So, here's a look at a couple of the most recent lager-based lawsuits, and what you can learn and apply to your own small business.

Imitation, Flattery, and Craft Beer Image

Stone Brewing out of Escondido, CA is one of the largest independent craft breweries in the country. So perhaps it put an irresistible target on its back for larger, corporate-owned brands like Keystone. Or maybe it's just that the two breweries have very similar names, and when the latter released rebranded cans with just the word "Stone" visible on one side, it was an innocent attempt to look cool. Either way, Stone Brewing sued Keystone and its owner/distributor MillerCoors LLC for trademark infringement.

"Stone Brewing brings this trademark action to halt Defendant Miller Coors's misguided campaign to steal consumer loyalty and awesome reputation of Stone's craft brews and iconic STONE trademark," the lawsuit reads. "MillerCoors recently decided to rebrand its Colorado Rockies-themed "Keystone" beer as "STONE" -- simultaneously abandoning Keystone's own heritage and falsely associating itself with Stone's well-known craft brews."

Miller Coors didn't seem fazed by the litigation. "This lawsuit is a clever publicity stunt with a multi-camera, tightly-scripted video featuring Stone's founder Greg Koch," spokesperson Marty Maloney alleged. "Since Keystone’s debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used 'Stone' to refer to the Keystone brand and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process."

And there might be a kernel of truth to Maloney's accusation. Craft beer and trademark expert Brendan Palfreyman unearthed some internal Stone documents tracking the "extent of the marketing impact Stone Brewing believed it generated by publicizing this lawsuit," and how the brewery "tracked and received a tangible economic benefit from publicizing the lawsuit."

As any business owner knows, or at least should know, the market response to litigation is clearly a factor in deciding whether a lawsuit is a good idea. So it's only natural that Stone brewing would consider how beer consumers would take news of one brewery suing another. (Especially since similar lawsuits have been frowned upon.) Also, this revelation doesn't impact Stone's underlying trademark claims, which will be decided by a judge or jury. However, if MillerCoors can prove that marketing was the sole impetus of the lawsuit, and those trademark claims are completely without merit, that could mean sanctions for Stone Brewing's attorneys. So, while marketing and public image may be one thing to consider before filing a lawsuit, it generally can't be the sole basis of litigation.

Other Stones, Glass Houses, and ... Corn?

If you've been paying attention to the past Super Bowl, later sporting events, or any beer advertisements since then, you might've caught wind of the Great Corn Wars of 2019: Bud Light's marketing spat with Miller Coors over the latter's use of corn syrup in Miller Lite and Coors Light. Well, the commercial conflict has spilled over into the courtroom, and Miller has won an early round, obtaining an injunction blocking Bud Light (and owner Anheuser-Busch) from using the words "corn syrup" in attack ads until the ongoing litigation is complete.

From afar, bickering over beer made with corn syrup, while the other is made from rice, seems like pots and kettles arguing over shades of black. But when you get the farmers involved, you know it's serious. It's a lesson to pick your legal battles wisely, as you never know which allies your adversary may have.

And, of course, the biggest lesson of any litigation is to have the best lawyers on your side. Find one in your area today, before you get into too much trouble.

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