Protecting Beer Brands: A Trademark Strategy for Brewers

By Chuck Knull

I have spent a great deal of time as a lawyer helping brewers keep their brands from encroachers.  There are numerous ways that the brand names and trade dress of one beer can cross over into the territory of another beer brand.  As a result, a bartender in a dimly lit bar may pick the wrong bottle out of the cooler for a patron, or a soused patron might slur out an order one brand when intending another. Things like this have plagued the larger brewers for ages. Hence, specially colored and shaped bottles, and distinctive cans are often used by them.

Add to this the confusion of restaurants and pubs, which may have names close to the names of beers,  serving their own mini-brews and the problem gets bigger.  Now, with a multitude of local breweries growing and expanding in the U.S., the possibility is growing of one brewery’s “Red Ale” looking and sounding a lot like the “Red Ale” from another brewery that used to have a territory far enough away to make no difference. As we have reviewed the nation we have noted that a lot of growing local breweries need to step up the level of protection for their brands.  Otherwise, they may face expensive and uncertain litigation in the future.

I have written about the problem of relying on the TTB Certificate of Label Approval. A COLA IS NOT BRAND PROTECTION. My discussion is intended to offer a roadmap to actual brand protection using the Federal Lanham Trademark Act and related legislation to obtain concrete protection. The primary methods of obtaining protection for your brands must, of course, depend on individual budgets, but a growing brewer must not stint on brand protection or it will very possibly run into boundaries that it will not be able to cross over.

The aim of any brewer of beer should be to make sure that when a customer orders its beer, it gets its beer. The aim of branding is to be sure that all potential customers know about one’s brands. The way one does both of these things is by adopting a brand strategy.  Below is an aggressive strategy such as the ones that I have helped large, multi-national brewers carry out. Select from this list in a generous way and implement each selection.

Trademark Registrations Are Territorial

Except for a very few, absolutely famous trademarks, a trademark registration will not provide trademark rights beyond the jurisdiction providing the registration.  There are great stories in trademark law about people visiting foreign countries, seeing a nice product with a nice mark connected to it, and taking the entire concept of the product and mark to another country and, more or less, cloning the product.  Later, the originator decides to move into the same country and finds that it has no rights to use its trademark there.  Trademark registrations are territorial.

I have had some interesting cases showing such twists and turns. I represented a Dutch milk (not beer) coop which had made a popular condensed milk product in Vietnam (used to make wonderful Vietnamese coffee). The mark had been expropriated by the Communist Vietnamese government.  But Vietnamese immigrants to the USA demanded the product and the former managers of the Vietnamese subsidiary who were among these immigrants developed the brand in the US under the authority of the Dutch Coop.

When Vietnam went capitalist, the milk company which had evolved out of the seizure from the Dutch tried to bring into the US a close version of the Dutch product already here.  It lost in court.

Another situation causing great agitation for AmBev, the owner of the Budweiser beer brand, involves prior use of Budweiser by European brewers blocking attempts by AmBev to obtain Common Market trademark registrations (and a reverse situation where the Czech owner of perhaps the oldest Budweiser trademark must change its brandname for its been when it sells into the United States).

Strategic Trademark Registration

  1. Obtain trademark registrations for each beer brand in BLOCK LETTERS in each country where the beer will be sold, because trademark rights are territorial.
  2. Obtain a trademark registration for one’s House Mark in BLOCK LETTERS in each country where the beer will be sold, because trademark rights are territorial.  I have previously written about House Marks.
  3. Obtain trademark registrations for each beer and can label (including all colors and graphics) in each country where the beer will be sold, because trademark rights are territorial.  An advanced trademark program is going to be concerned with look alike labels.  It is too easy for a bartender or consumer to pick up the wrong bottle, can or six pack if the labels are too similar.  A few mistakes and the brewer that has simulated the popular label will find its sales increasing.
  4. Obtain whatever protection is available for any special bottle or can colors and shapes. In the U.S., such protection is generally available through trademarks. In other countries, special design protection is available.
  5. Obtain trademark registrations for slogans used in advertising your beers.A good slogan can enhance even a one trademark brewery’s house brand mark. Some old standards are listed below:- The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous (Schlitz)
    – The Champagne of Bottled Beer (Miller)
    – It’s All About the Beer (Heineken)Check out more great beer slogans here.
  6. Make appropriate trademark applications for goods distributed to bars and restaurants, such as signage, glassware, coasters, and for any items that are sold or licensed for sale, such as T-shirts with beer labels on them.

Many of the worst experiences that brewers face are caused by t-shirt companies printing what they consider to be parody t-shirts featuring pictures of beer cans or bottles along with statements like “I only drink

[name of beer] when I want to get blasted.”  Alcohol is a highly regulated business and the government frowns upon statements about beverages that imply potency, drunkeness, and the like.

A brewer should want nothing to do with such “parody” and the first step is to apply for trademark applications for the types of goods that might be bothersome.

Copyright Registrations Support Your Trademarks

  1. Depending upon how original and artistic one’s labels are, it may be possible to apply for and register copyright in the labels. Timely registrations can provide clout against competitors who copy too closely other’s labels.  Learn more about why applying for copyright registration is a good idea here.
  2. Company websites and advertising materials should be subject to periodic copyright applications and registration.

Police Trademarks to Stop Problems Early

  1. Review and dispute domain names containing house mark or brand marks or similar
  2. Have your trademark lawyers proactively watch your marks or employ a trademark watch service for USPTO applications for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, restaurants and bars, and foods such as cheese and snacks; oppose similar names.
  3. Monitor Twitter, Facebook, etc. for derogatory comments about brands and take action by complaining to these services and/or referring to your lawyers.
  4. Check for new COLA filings for alcoholic beverages to assure that no similar names to your brands are applied for in COLA filings.  Small breweries, distilleries and wineries may never do anything beyond a COLA filing. Timely cease and desist letters can stop the use of similar names.  We have discussed why reliance upon a COLA alone is not a brand protection program.
  5. An owner of a registered trademark can file with U.S. Customs to prevent counterfeit or unauthorized imports of trademarked goods. Entry of such goods, when they are alcoholic beverages, is less of a problem than with some other goods.
  6. Review competitor advertising for misrepresentations of your brands or false or misleading claims as to their own brands. Take action if necessary.
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Charles H. Knull

Charles H. Knull is an intellectual property lawyer with over 35 years of experience. He is a member of the N.Y. and D.C. bars. Knull P.C. is a member of the International Trademark Association (INTA).