Can one brewery sue another to stop them from using a stylized version of “IPA,” a familiar acronym for the popular style of beer known as India Pale Ale? As you may have heard, the Lagunitas Brewing Co. just tried . . . and it didn’t go so well. But things could have worked out very differently if Lagunitas had raised its claims back in 1995, a time when Lagunitas says it was the only one using “IPA” to market an India Pale Ale.
On Monday, The Lagunitas Brewing Co. filed suit against fellow California craft brewery Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. for trademark infringement in an attempt to prevent Sierra Nevada from rolling out a new label for Sierra Nevada’s “Hop Hunter IPA”. Lagunitas claimed Sierra Nevada’s label depicted “IPA” in a style that was too similar to the way “IPA” appears on the label of Lagunitas’ flagship “Lagunitas IPA”.
Sierra Nevada’s design, Lagunitas argued, “uses all capital, large, bold, black ‘IPA’ lettering in a font selection that is remarkably similar to the Lagunitas design” and was likely to create confusion among consumers as to the origin of Sierra Nevada’s product.
By Wednesday, Lagunitas had dropped the case, citing the overwhelming public uproar over its claims: “Today was in the hands of the ultimate court; The Court of Public Opinion and in it we got an answer to our Question; Our flagship IPA’s registered federal trademark has limits.
Why Lagunitas Faced an Uphill Battle
Given the extensive use of the acronym “IPA” in the marketplace today to describe India Pale Ale style beers, it’s not difficult to understand how Lagunitas faced an uphill battle in both the court of law and the court of public opinion, particularly given that Lagunitas’ federal registration, first sought in 2007, did not cover the term “IPA” alone, but claimed “LAGUNITAS IPA INDIA PALE ALE” together with the other words and designs shown on the label. But Lagunitas likely would have had an easier go at successfully asserting the exclusive right to use the term “IPA” with beer, had it done so much earlier.
In its complaint Lagunitas alleged that when it first began selling Lagunitas IPA in 1995, there were only a handful of other brewers making an India Pale Ale and none of them marketed or sold their product using the acronym “IPA.” If true, and “IPA” had not become recognized by consumers and known in the trade as short-hand for “India Pale Ale”, Lagunitas could have argued that it gained trademark rights in “IPA” by being the first to use it to market beer in 1995.
Sound like crazy talk? It’s not. In trademark law, terms that merely describe the ingredients, qualities or characteristics of the goods–like “hops” and “refreshing” for beer– are generally ineligible for trademark protection without more. But an acronym made up of the initial letters of two or more descriptive terms can still be claimed as a trademark if the acronym has not yet become a recognized abbreviation for, and synonymous with, the descriptive terms on which it is based. Thus, if “IPA” was not generally recognized as an acronym for India Pale Ale in 1995, Lagunitas could claim it as a trademark.
Trademark Strategies: Establish Your Rights as Early as Possible
Washington-based winery Hedges Family Estate and its “CMS” mark provide a good example of how this argument can succeed. In late 2001, Hedges launched a new wine it called “CMS”. In 2004, Hedges applied to register “CMS” in a stylized font (i.e., all capital, large, bold lettering!) for wine.
Another vineyard, Baroness Small Estates, challenged the registration based on the argument that “CMS” was an acronym for “Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah”, the blend of varietals Hedges used to make its “CMS” wine. Baroness argued that because “CMS” merely described the ingredients in Hedges’ wine, it couldn’t be claimed as a trademark. In support of its claims, Baroness even pointed to Hedges’ label, which showed the words “A Blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah” superimposed over the “CMS” element:
Hedges prevailed because Baroness failed to show that in the minds of consumers “CMS” was a recognized abbreviation for, and synonymous with, “Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah”. That consumers recognized “Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah” as descriptive terms when used with wine wasn’t enough.
As these examples show, acronyms such as “IPA” and “CMS” can be asserted as trademarks for beer or wine if used before they have become generally recognized as descriptive abbreviations, but it becomes more difficult to do so as they fall into general use. Strategies for successfully establishing rights in such terms include getting to know what can (or cannot) be protected as a trademark early in the process and taking steps to put others on notice of what you claim as your mark by, for example, applying to register the mark or including the “tm” symbol with the mark on labels and in advertising. And once rights are established, owners need to make timely efforts to educate others that the mark is symbol of source for their product, and not a term of general reference. Because once a term slips into general use, it is difficult if not impossible to claim it back, as Lagunitas discovered the hard way.