Virtually every large city, notable landscape feature, creature and weather pattern of North America – as well as myriad other words, concepts and images – has been snapped up and trademarked as the name of either a brewery or a beer. For newcomers to the increasingly crowded industry of more than 3,000 breweries, finding names for beers, or even themselves, is increasingly hard to do without risking a legal fight.
“Increasingly crowded” only begins to describe the phenomenon. As reported by the Brewers Association (a great source of nifty stats), the United States had 3,040 breweries as of June 2014 – up from 2,538 breweries just a year earlier, and up from a post-prohibition low of 89 breweries in 1979. With so many new market entrants scrambling to stake out a brand identity, trademark disputes are practically inevitable.
Craft brewery trademark disputes, like the beers themselves, come in many varieties. Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev sued North Carolina’s Natty Greene’s over its “Natty Light” trademark. More recently, Anchor Steam sued City Steam Brewery, claiming it had been using the word "steam" since the 1930s. Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney) recently sued Empire Brewing Company for selling "Empire Strikes Bock." And Lagunitas Brewery has been on both the receiving and giving ends of well-publicized trademark disputes. Just last week, it filed a lawsuit against Sierra Nevada over its "IPA" mark, and then dropped it following a firestorm of criticism on social media.
Strong trademarks are a precious asset in a crowded market. Craft breweries of all sizes should work with counsel throughout the brand development process to help ensure that their trademarks can withstand the legal challenges that can come with success. Craft breweries should also consider how their existing trademarks can help when a competitor starts taking away sales using a similar name or imagery.