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Yesterday, news broke that Northern California brewery Lagunitas was suing Sierra Nevada, the other big maker of craft beers in Northern California. The controversy centered on the design and use of the letters "IPA" in the labels for both breweries' India Pale Ales. Lagunitas claimed that Sierra Nevada's design infringed on a trademark for its particular use of "IPA."
Today, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Lagunitas' founder announced over Twitter that he was dropping the suit after some harsh public criticism.
What can businesses learn from Lagunitas' mini-controversy?
Elsa is right: Sometimes it's better to let public controversies burn themselves out. Failure to do so has a name: the Streisand Effect, after Barbra Streisand's ill-fated attempt to stop people from photographing her house on the Malibu coast (for reasons unrelated to her). Streisand's attempt to stifle photographers garnered much more negative attention than if she had done nothing.
Sometimes a "controversy" is so small that it's visible only to the people involved; if you ignore it, it will go away without anyone else noticing.
Of course, when it comes to trademarks, "letting it go" may not be an option. Trademarks are based on actual use of a unique mark or design. If others impermissibly use the mark, then it could be a sign that it's not so unique after all.
Failure to enforce a trademark could result in your losing the exclusive rights to it. This is why businesses are quick to file lawsuits for what appear to be silly "infringements"; if they don't, their inaction could be used against them later in a far more legitimate case as evidence that they don't care anymore.
One theory of advertising holds that even customers talking about you negatively beats them not talking about you at all. The filing fee for a federal lawsuit is about $400, which is cheap compared to what ad agencies charge. So if you want to follow in Lagunitas' footsteps, here's a general outline:
If you think I'm kidding, the San Francisco Chronicle article about Lagunitas' lawsuit retreat highlights a number of tweets from people who decided to toss back a Lagunitas beer after its founder decided to withdraw the suit. Good will is restored, and everyone conveniently has a Lagunitas to celebrate. Positively diabolical.
If you're concerned about enforcing your trademarks, visit the FindLaw Directory to find an experienced trademarks lawyer near you.
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