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Starbucks Owns Circles, Stars, Sans Serif Font. Your Business Doesn’t.

What’s up with big corporations going after small businesses and non-profits over dubious trademark infringements? If there’s actual trickery involved, and a company is looking to capitalize off the success of an established brand, then fine, sue ‘em into next week. But increasingly it seems like big business is going after the little guy just because they can. Here’s a couple examples from just this week:

Offender Number One: Starbucks. Apparently as a part of its continued effort to reclaim its glory days, the struggling coffee giant is after a local Seattle roller derby team over its logo. The problem? Apparently the round logo, two stars, and sans-serif font. While the two logos do look suspiciously similar, it’s not exactly like the Rat City Rollergirls are slinging carmel light frappucinos. According to the Roller Derby League’s lawyer:

“The Starbucks lawyer said that the girls on the roller derby team look scary, and she didn’t think, in her own personal opinion, [that] Starbucks would want to associate themselves with the scary characters of Rat City Rollergirls.”

Enough said.

Starbucks Logos

Offender Number Two: Johnson & Johnson. Slashdot reports today that Johnson & Johnson lost a recent lawsuit against the American Red Cross—a charity—over its use of the red cross logo. Apparently Johnson & Johnson was frustrated because the Red Cross was using the cross on products it pimps out to the public (has anyone really seen “Red Cross” brand ointment in their local store?). Says the Red Cross’ mouthpiece:

“For a multibillion-dollar drug company to claim that the Red Cross violated a criminal statute … simply so that J&J can make more money, is obscene.” (via the International Herald Tribune)

It seems like these stories pop up every week. What do you think? Should corporations back off trademark cases when the other business isn’t a competitor or are they right to fight tooth and nail ?

5 Responses to “Starbucks Owns Circles, Stars, Sans Serif Font. Your Business Doesn’t.”

  1. caitlin says:

    The really offensive thing is that Starbucks and RCRG are both home-grown Seattle institutions. Going after the livelihood of a do-it-yourself organization that has existed right under Starbucks’ nose since 2004 is pretty low.

  2. mjandri says:

    While “big business” looks like the bad guy in this particular instance, a closer look at the nature of trademark law in this country provides a rational explanation for their actions. A trademark is valid in the U.S. only if it is capable of distinguishing the source of the goods or services from those of its competitors.

    A common way in which a trademark may become invalid is through genericide, which can occur when the public appropriates otherwise distinguishable elements of the trademark in order to refer to a general class of goods. Google provides us with a good example. Consider the now common phrase: “I Googled it”. If Google does not aggressively police its mark, the term “google” will become synonymous with search engines in general and will thereby fail to distinguish the source of the goods as required by the trademark laws. Other good examples include escalator, kleenex, and bandaid.

    Once a mark becomes generic, it is too late for the business to respond. The mark is forever lost. Aggressive policing of your trademark is the only way to ensure that it will maintain its status as an indication of source in the marketplace.

  3. richard says:

    Yeah, to claim the stylized mermaid is one thing. But to claim the circle and stars is bad form. Not only is it clear that the Rat City Roller Girls aren’t affiliated with or endorsed by Starbucks, but their logo is kind of an homage. The connection to the Starbucks logo is a benefit more than it is a detractor.

    It’s even worse when a company tries to claim a color.

    And claiming to own a patent for something so obvious as using an image as a link is just pathetic.

    PS. Shame on J&J. Seriously.

  4. benpirie says:

    How about a whole town? In November, Ebay threatened to sue the owner of gotodepoebay.com (the owner has RE interests in Depoe Bay, OR) for infringing on their brand. Full story here: http://wweek.com/editorial/3303/8267/

  5. Netrentatoy says:

    It is sad that in todays world that the corporations rule the nest. We are derived of lawyers and laws that stop the small business owner to achieving success that has been extended to our big companies. It is all who you know if you want to break into any industry, though sometime luck and persistents will pay off in the end as well. Starbucks is just keeping their name out there and any publicity is good for the company.

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