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Starbucks play smart by acting “dumb”

Posted on Feb 24, 2014 by Dr. Julie Nixon  | Tags: trade mark, fair use, parody  | 0 Comments

By Julie Nixon

Earlier this month a parody coffee shop mocking Starbucks opened in Los Angeles under the name “Dumb Starbucks”. The shop resembled Starbucks, other than the “dumb” prefix and free coffee, and quickly became a social media sensation. Dumb Starbucks maintained their use of the Starbucks logo was legal as it was entirely for the purpose of parodying the brand. Surprisingly the heavy handed response expected from Starbuck’s lawyers never came, instead the company issued a statement that the Dumb Starbucks “obviously” wasn’t a Starbucks.

Legal justification

Dumb Starbucks produced FAQs to answer some of the queries it had received. Justifying their existence under US “parody law”, the FAQs stated that by “adding the word 'dumb,' we are technically 'making fun of Starbucks, which allows us to use their trademarks under a law known as 'fair use.'”  Fair use is perhaps better known as a defence for parody under copyright law in the US (no exception covering the creation of parody currently exists under UK copyright law), but it can be also used as defence under trade mark law. US courts may consider the possibility of confusion in analysing whether using a trademark for parody is fair or not, and by Starbucks own admission no one thought Dumb Starbucks was the real thing.

Bad advice “for you”

When the big reveal came as to who was behind Dumb Starbucks, US comedian Nathan Fielder claimed credit. Fielder has a Comedy Central show, “Nathan for You”, in which he gives terrible advice to small businesses. So “advising” a small business to start up as “Dumb Starbucks” was a parody on Fielder’s comedy show (and clearly terrible advice), made fun of Starbucks and provided great publicity for the show.

Not so dumb after all

Starbucks for their part have had their fingers burnt before by taking on the “little guy”. Back in 1997 some Seattle monks were served a cease and desist notice by the company for using the phrase “Christmas Blend” to sell coffee. Although Starbucks have a registered trademark for “Christmas Blend” and was entitled to protect its mark, the company earned very unfavourable press for being so heavy handed.

So very wisely in this case Starbucks rode out the media frenzy until the Los Angeles County Board of Health proceeded to shut down Dumb Starbucks for operating without a license. Perhaps this approach should have been adopted by Red Bull, who as Andy previously reported earned negative commentary on social media from their “bullying” of a small microbrewery called Redwell. Sometimes playing “dumb” can be the smart thing to do!

Julie

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