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Another Reason To Distinguish Alcohol Markets In Trademarks: Actual Infringement Defended By Use Across Alcohol Products


A brief review of all of the articles I've written in these here pages about sweet, delicious alcohol mostly have to do with trademark spats between drink-makers, including many in which I've made the point that it's high time for the USPTO to get a little more subtle when it comes to its alcohol marketplace designations. Beer isn't wine, and wine isn't liquor, and the public looking to buy one of those is quite unlikely to confuse one product for another. The focus of many of those posts was how this lack of distinction between the alcohol markets has resulted in too many aggressive trademark lawsuits and threat letters that hardly seemed necessary.

But there is a flip side to all of this that serves as another perfectly good reason for the USPTO to make a change. Recently, one liquor distiller sued another in what seems like a fairly plausible trademark infringement case.

Few Spirits, the maker of Breakfast Gin, has taken the Michigan-based Gray Skies Distillery to court over the planned December launch of its new whiskey, Breakfast Rye. As reported by MLive.com, Few’s counsel sent a notice in October telling Gray Skies it had “prior rights and registration” to Breakfast Gin, and told it to cease any use of Breakfast Rye. In the lawsuit, it alleged trademark infringement, unfair competition, and violation of Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act. In response, Gray Skies submitted a letter of protest to Few’s pending trademark application.

The Breakfast Gin producer is now seeking an injunction to prevent Gray Skies from selling Breakfast Rye, including damages if it goes up for sale in stores or in bars.

Now, we could spend time talking about just how valid a trademark the word "breakfast" is in the liquor industry -- whether it's generic, whether it's overtly common, and whether or not its actually somewhat descriptive of the flavor or ingredients within each liquor product itself. Frankly, I don't want to do that in this post. The trademark seems valid to me and it certainly isn't striking any well-tuned outrage chords in my psyche.

But one of the defenses proffered by Gray Skies' attorney, Thomas Williams, in its opposition to Few's trademark application shows exactly the problem with a lack of market distinctions in the alcohol industry, except in reverse.

"The use of 'breakfast' to describe alcoholic beverage products that have characteristics, aromas or flavors reminiscent of breakfast foods, is replete in the marketplace," Williams wrote. "For example, Founders Brewing Company markets and sells Founders Breakfast Stout and Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. Dogfish Head markets and sells Beer for Breakfast Stout."

Except that none of that should actually matter. Few shouldn't be denied a trademark on the word "breakfast" due to the plethora of beer brews using the word in their names. Different alcohol medium, different customer base, different market. That the USPTO doesn't recognize any of that is the problem, of course, but it's disappointing to see the lawyers for a member of the industry ignore all of that over a simple trademark opposition. It's worth noting as well that the same lawyer, Williams, does not trot out this defense in response to the lawsuit Few filed. There instead he relies on the overall trade dress and, remarkably, claims that gin and whiskey customers are discerning enough to discriminate between types of spirits.

One of the factors in trademark law focuses on the likelihood of confusion over a product by consumers. Buyers of craft spirits are very discriminating, Williams said.

"I think we would vigorously dispute that anybody's going to be confused when you put the two products side by side in the market, he said.

Pick a lane, counselor.

By ignoring obvious market distinctions in the alcohol industries, the USPTO has allowed lawyers like Williams to try to play both sides of the argument. On the one hand, oppose a trademark because of similar marks in the beer industry. On the other hand, claim that similar marks within the spirits industry are just fine because gin and whiskey are basically in different markets. A little clarity through common sense any time now, USPTO.


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