A story broke on the Beer Advocate forums that Lagunitas Brewing had filed a lawsuit against Sierra Nevada Brewing for trademark infringement for similarities between SN’s new Hop Hunter IPA packaging and Lagunitas flagship IPA. There has been no love lost between Lagunitas founder/owner Tony Magee (an outspoken critic of larger breweries who have taken state subsidies and tax deals) and Sierra Nevada but still this move surprised the entire industry.
Craft brewers often get a bad rap from beer geeks any time that a lawsuit is filed. Such is the passion that beer fans have that we hate to see our favorite breweries getting entangled with politics and doing business like “the man”. What many do not realize is that these trademark disputes will only be getting more common as this industry becomes more crowded and unfortunately are a part of doing business in America. Once you have a trademark you are responsible for defending it or you could easily lose it. Why have a trademark at all? Because then nothing is stopping a competitor from ripping off your brand and leaving you no recourse but lose it.
With that said this trademark infringement case does not look like it has any merit whatsoever to me.
The only real similarities between the two labels is they both display the breweries name/logo above the words IPA in black. This is common on many, many, many beer labels. Lagunitas contends that the Serif font is distinctive but they look quite bit different to me. The Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA text is sharper and edgier almost like a comic book superhero title, a style in which they have been moving towards ever since the Ruthless Rye launch 3 years ago. Lagunitas lawsuit also alleges distinctive “kerning” or letter spacing, I think that’s a bit ridiculous and again there are probably many similar examples. Finally the lawsuit alleges they both have a “slightly aged or weaathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and elimination of any periods between the letters”. Again I think these fonts are quite different, the Lagunitas “IPA” has a more jagged cut look as if it was carved in wood while the Sierra Nevada looks distinctly machine printed. If you look closely on the Sierra Nevada label you can see they added a slightly textured look with little spots without color to emulate a typewriter or printing press look, I guess you can call that weathered but its quite different than Lagunitas which has no spottiness in the solid cream colored background or black type. Lagunitas does have a point that there are no periods between the letters, uhm yeah but I would be hard pressed to tell you what breweries actually do bother putting periods between IPA.
Tony Magee of Lagunitas responded to the lawsuit news with a series of tweets via his personal account:
This is a course of action I did not want to take- I tried to work w Ken without succes. Deeply saddened and & I wish it was otherwise.
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…There would be hell to pay and we’d have it coming…
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Can you imagine what would happen if I used a crown logo or a golden scroll or a red star or a red triangle or a harp on my own label…?
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But there’s a certain cheapness to that & u don’t own the ground you stand on, cuz there is no ground. But it’s easier. And it’s cheaper.
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When doin sumpin new its best to build fr the ground up. It’s time-consuming. Easier to use a sky-hook and lever up on someone else’s works.
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Finding a uniquely individual voice is hard in life&even harder in design: a visual language w/o words. Archetypes. Symbols. Cypheric memes.
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That work is a genuine tribute to the forces of creativity present in CraftBrewing today. That voice of the individual brewer is very pure.
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We TM’d our IPA as a ‘design mark’. Can’t claim the letters. 1000′s of us make IPAs. Most have found their own cool way t say it w/strength.
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It represents an awful lot. It’s how u know us as individuals. Maker’s-marks were like that in medieval craft guilds. Identity is subtle biz
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Trademarks r a big part of what craft brewers do…like a cattle brand or aboriginal peeps tattoo. The 1st TM was Bass Ale’s ‘red triangle’.
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The following tweets are from a couple weeks back…it’s all still true….
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And Sierra Nevada issued a very brief statement just on their own website:
Our Statement On Hop Hunter IPA
Founded in 1980, Sierra Nevada is a pioneer of craft brewing and sets the standard for quality. Our brand narrative has always been about our passion, innovation and intrepid spirit.
We’ve been making IPAs since 1981. Hop Hunter IPA is the latest product in our portfolio, with the bright Sierra Nevada banner prominently displayed across the top of the design, and the beer style underneath—an IPA in this case—so that beer drinkers know exactly what beer they are reaching for. We have no interest in our products being confused with any other brand.
Debuting in 12-ounce bottles in early 2015, Hop Hunter IPA features oil from wet hops steam distilled directly in the field, minutes after harvest.
I am neither a lawyer nor a trademark expert but I know a bit about both, especially trademarks and design and type and to me this looks like a shot at Sierra Nevada that is unlikely to succeed if it went to court but it’s probably not meant to. This feels to me like Tony Magee yelling at the other big breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium who came late to the IPA game to get off his lawn. Maybe even it’s a pre-emptive strike or an attempt to delay the release of Hop Hunter a beer that comes with it’s own hype because of the first time use of “Distilled Hop Oil” from fresh hops. A technique that Sierra Nevada is launching for the first time with this beer but something that the other breweries are sure to follow-up with their own takes on. Either way I am sure this will never come to a verdict.
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