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The Curious Case of Stone vs. Keystone

If you are new to my website you might think that this is a beer blog dedicated to beer law and all it’s legalities. Being that this is my 3rd post in my last 4th that takes on a legal aspect of the beer industry you would have a good case (pun intended) with that assumption. Alas I am no lawyer, let alone trying to run a law blog about the beer game, but I have recently found the intricacies of beer laws fascinating. With that in mind yesterday I got a nice, new story to drop many hours of my day reading about with the news that Stone Brewing Company was suing MillerCoors for trademark infringement over the rebranding and marketing of their Keystone Light brand. A craft brewery suing a big boy brewery? Woah!

The news of the case was broken by Stone themselves through the use of a cheeky video staring co-founder and fellow graying beard enthusiast Greg Koch. In true Stone style the video includes Greg being snarky if not arrogant (get it?) while explaining the company’s thought process through the entire decision for the lawsuit. I mean do you expect Stone to be 100% straight laced?

He sites new can designs that prominently display the word STONE separated from it’s usual partnering word KEY and, honestly, at this point the video it seems very obvious that Greg is covering the KEY word up with his hand and it can make you think that this is nothing but a publicity stunt. When this is followed up by Greg claiming that this was indeed not a marketing campaign in a five minute, well produced video with graphics, a soundtrack and an official hastag it’s hard for some to not think that it was a stunt. However when new sources received the official complaint you could tell right away that this was anything but a game.

When Brendan Palfreyman, a craft beer attorney who specializes in trademark law and runs a service called Trade Mark Your Beer, got a hold of the complaint he took to Twitter with all the details brought forth by Stone. The new branding and packaging for Keystone Light could create a wall of Stone when placed next to one and other. MillerCoors even ran an ad campaign called Hunt the Stone with use of the new cans simply displaying the word Stone.

Stone has held the US trademark for the word STONE in the beer category since 1998 and even was able to have the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) deny an attempt by MillerCoors to trademark the word STONES in 2007 because of the similarities to their mark.

Trademark law is a very interesting and confusing area. Trademark holders are required to police their marks on their own and failure to do so can result in losing the mark to an infringing source. This means that the USPTO does not actively go out there and see if people are infringing on registered trademarks, you have to do it. When seeing the very liberal use of their trademark by MillerCoors Stone had little options than to bring a suit against Keith Stone‘s parent company.

In what is seemingly becoming a weekly event, Beer Twitter freaked while missing the point all together. People latched onto Greg’s words about the lawsuit not being a marketing campaign while laughing at the believed hypocrisy coming from a video with a campaigned hashtag. I admit, I was there at first too. But as the experts (like Brendan) received more information, and did a hell of a lot of leg work, it became clear that this was a legit complaint. It even appears to have some merit (I’m not a lawyer) but Twitter latched onto the video and the hashtag and Greg spitting beer out and signaled it for dismissal. But really why?

This is par for the course for Stone when you think about it. Stone has always been a bold and brazen company that will get in your face, poke fun at the norm and do it with a general style that almost all of their branding and marketing continually has. That is what solid branding is. You always live that culture. Additionally why should a brewery that feels they have been wronged by an industry giant not take to a medium that they are really good at to drum up support? Stone has been doing this for years and it seems like when they put out a new video marketing campaign it always gets us talking. Sounds like mission accomplished to me.

I think that the only issue in this whole case (again, it’s a pun, because beer) is Greg outright saying that this is not a marketing campaign. I get what he meant by that, that this is a real lawsuit and not something to laugh about, but in reality it is a marketing campaign with a specific goal to open people’s eyes to a trademark dispute that actually sees a multinational brewery on the defendant side for once. It probably would have been better for Greg to just leave that whole marketing campaign bit out but it may not have stopped trolls from making their Monday more entertaining.

In the end this could shape up to be a very monumental case in the beer industry. In my nearly 10 years following beer we are used to seeing Big Boys sending C&Ds to craft breweries and craft brewery on craft brewery litigation but never before have I seen a good sized craft brewery (Stone was 9th overall in production last year) take one of the Big Boys to court. It will be interesting to see over time how this case (hehe) plays out.

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