It's been a minute since we've had to cover some trademark nonsense in the beer industry. In fact, several recent stories have actually represented what might be mistaken for a clapback on aggressive trademark protectionism in the alcohol space. But, like all great things, it just couldn't last. The specific tomfoolery that has brought reality crashing down on us once again comes out of Iowa, where Confluence Brewing has filed a trademark suit against Confluence On 3rd, which is an apartment complex that does not serve or make beer.
Confluence Brewing Company on Friday filed a trademark lawsuit and motion for an injunction in Polk County District Court seeking to stop Confluence on 3rd apartments from using the name "Confluence."
John Martin, president and co-founder of Confluence Brewing, said representatives of the company have tried to have discussions with Roers Companies, the Long Lake, Minnesota-based developer of Confluence on 3rd and several other Des Moines-area properties, but felt that their complaints were "falling on deaf ears."
Those complaints appear to have centered around both companies using the word "confluence" and the potential public confusion that could cause. Which is really dumb. Because the brewery sells beer and the apartment complex rents apartments. A greater deviation in marketplaces I dare say could not be dreamed. And, yet, Confluence Brewing appears to have taken its opponent's refusal to negotiate on these invalid complaints as some sort of personal affront. After some back and forth about whether Confluence On 3rd might add the word "apartments" to the brand, it seems communication ceased. Jeff Koch, a principal at the parent company for Confluence On 3rd, had been a part of these conversations, but communication with him too was rebuffed.
Which isn't to say that Koch won't explain to the media just how ridiculous this all is.
The two companies have distinct names and operate in different business sectors, Koch said in his email to the Register. He said Confluence on 3rd has not experienced any confusion in the marketplace.
"Confluence on 3rd was named solely on the historic relevance the city was founded at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers," Koch said in his email to the Register. "It is unique to Des Moines history and should be celebrated, not solely owned and dictated by one brewing company."
This is essentially the localization of the aspect of trademark law that prevents a single company from locking up language globally. The whole point of trademark law is to prevent customer confusion within a given market, so that one brewer can't pass themselves off as another by having similar names and branding. That just isn't a concern here, given the disparity in the markets in which these two companies play. So, what got us to the point of having Confluence Brewing alleging true concern about public confusion?
Beer coasters, largely.
In April 2017, court documents show, Confluence Brewing called Roers Companies asking them to cease and desist their use of blue drink coasters promoting Confluence on 3rd at Des Moines bars.
"I just think the bar coasters just seem a little bit blatant," Kerndt said. "I mean, they were being distributed at establishments that serve my clients’ beer."
Emails between Kerndt and Koch show Confluence on 3rd had distributed all their coasters by the time of the April call and have not ordered any additional coasters since then.
Which is entirely besides the point. Just because a company puts out the tchotchke of its choice doesn't suddenly put it in a competitive situation with anyone who makes those tchotchkes. If that were the case, the tchotchke market as a whole wouldn't... you know... exist. The only other type of confusion mentioned in the article for Confluence Brewing is that apparently people's Google map skills occasionally send them to the wrong Confluence company for the wrong item. Still, that isn't the type of confusion trademark law is supposed to prevent and it's easily remedied by directing the customer to another address.
I will say that Confluence Brewing comes off as very earnest on the matter, so perhaps the folks there simply aren't aware of the intricacies of trademark law. Its legal team, on the other hand, certainly should be.