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Dumb Starbucks Coffee – Trademark, Copyright and IP Law

A coffee shop in the hip neighborhood of Los Feliz opened up this weekend. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, as indie coffee shops in this hipster haunt area of Los Angeles are very common place.

What made this one different is its branding.

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The name outside the shop is “Dumb Starbucks Coffee”. It uses the Starbucks colors, the familiar mermaid logo and the same font.

Whoever set up the establishment paid a lot of attention to detail. Inside, the furniture looks like what you would expect to find in a Starbucks. Even the menus have that distinct Starbucks look. Well, with the word Dumb preceding everything on the menu.

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The store is getting a lot of attention, as you would expect.  When I went to check out this place this morning, the line was about and hour and a half long. That is a lot of attention.

Did it help that the coffee was free? Probably.  But lets look at the reason behind it.

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No, this isn’t a real Starbucks. It isn’t some clever marketing to get hipsters to allow a corporation to build a store in their neighborhood. And whoever started this shop knows they likely will get the attention of the real Starbucks.

But I think that might be the point. Here is their FAQ they hand out freely and is posted on the door.

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At the very end of last year, Starbucks sent a cease-and-desist to a small pub that sold “Frappicino” beer.

There are valid reasons for this – but what you need to know is that if a company doesn’t make an effort to protect its Trademarks, courts have found they must not care about them, and they can lose protection for them. So, if Coke let you make “Coke Gum” it is possible over time others could make Coke soda. And then the value of the brand is lost. Same with Starbucks and Frappacino.

I believe this Dumb Starbucks is an artist pointing out that Starbucks maintains very strong control over its branding. They say so right in their FAQ.

The shop won’t actually sell you coffee. Everything has a price on the menu, but when you order they tell you “its on us today!”. (Side note, the “employees” were SUPER friendly despite the LONG lines)

The FAQ seems to rely on “parody law”. However, Parody law protects artistic works – typically those covered by Copyright, not logos which are protected by Trademark law. So, how could this work?

Because the coffee shop is not a shop (at least this is what I assume the artist behind this will tell you). It’s an artistic performance. They don’t charge you anything. You are experiencing art. And using protected logos in parody art pieces falls under Copyright.

For example, if you’ve seen Fight Club you’ll recall all the starbucks cups littered throughout the movie. The use of that company and their logos played into the story and message of that movie quite well.

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If they were to charge, then they are using Starbucks’s name and logo in a manner promoting their own shop, and could be liable. Same reason you can’t make Stupid Coke as a real product sold in grocery stores. You would simply be using Coke’s logo to promote your own goods. The whole “parody” thing goes out the window when you are selling something, not making a commentary on something. There are a ton of Trademark issues there including dilution, consumer confusion, and others.

So, this coffee shop is an art piece meant to point out IP laws and corporate control of branding. Will this hold up? I would love for some of my TM/Copyright friends to chime in and give their opinions.

I think realistically they will 1) run out of money soon. Coffee is a cheap commodity, but it is still a lot of free coffee, cups, rental space, employee wages to pay. 2) Health and Hygiene – there was no Health Inspection certificates to speak of. How long before the city comes by and shuts them down? 3) Starbucks could still send a C&D and make them come to court to explain and defend themselves. I’m sure the artist would just further use that to point out how much of a “tight grip” Starbucks holds on its branding.

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