David and Golibucks

“And your coffee sucks.”

I’ve recently been seeing articles like this traveling around slamming Starbucks for sending a cease-and-desist letter to a little bar in Missouri. See, they brewed a tasty new brew called “Frappicino,” which is just a letter away from Starbucks’ world famous trademark “Frappucino.” The tiff over the “F-word” is appealing to people because it shows a small little underdog taking on a corporate powerhouse head-on.

The bar did a fantastic job turning this little tempest in a beer mug into a fantastic publicity event, because their cheeky response letter (with a check for six dollars enclosed) went “viral” and support for little David vs. Golibucks abounds.

Similar situations occur every year around Thanksgiving when little churches and other non-profits get sued by the Super Bowl for their “Soup or Bowl” campaigns. Every time it happens rage sweeps through the populace as people cry foul. “Why would such a huge corporation pick on such a tiny little group of people who are trying to do a little good in the world?”

I am no apologist for corporate greed and bullying. On the contrary, I am a passionate supporter of local businesses. I’ll never understand why people pay six bucks for a sugary, syrupy “coffee” drink at Starbucks when they could support a local business down the street for half the price.

I am currently fighting the tremendously terrible travel-booking site Orbitz over a stupid situation involving a misspelling on an international flight ticket and it fills me with rage that huge corporations like Korean Airlines, American Airlines, and Orbitz are all treating a paying customer and getting away with it just because I’m a “little guy.” I’ve felt the same way pretty much every time I’ve ever had to call a giant corporation’s customer service line, and I really detest the degree of abuse corporations can dole out around the world without fear of any kind of just deserts.

That said, I really don’t blame corporations and international brands from sending cease-and-desist letters and pursuing these copyright and trademark infringements in court, and I would encourage any one of my clients to do the same if they value the ownership of their brand.

I once had a client who was printing T-shirts. It was a tiny little company but his shirt designs were really picking up steam and his brand was very valuable to him, because T-shirts are the sorts of things that are easy to reproduce and if a bigger corporation wanted to start stealing his designs — like they’re so fond of doing — his only method of retribution would would be legal action.

(And it’s not just bigger, meaner corporations one has to worry about. Anyone who follows the tech industry knows that there are patent trolls attacking innovators everywhere – from inventors to computer programmers to podcasters. Intellectual property is very serious business for the entrepreneurial-minded.)

A local publication, which I’m actually very fond of, started running ads for one of their clients using his T-shirt design and he asked me what to do. I told him he should send a polite, friendly letter asking for the paper to stop using his copyrighted material. I am actually friends with the editor of the publication, and he had some harsh words about this action, but I maintain that it was the right thing to do.

So, why do I side with the Super Bowl and Starbucks in these sensational cases of little guy vs. hulking corporation? The same reason I sided with my friend the T-shirt guy against my other friend the alt weekly publishing guy. For successful modern businesses, your brand is your most important piece of property, and playing it fast and loose with the use of your copyrighted material can cause you to lose it in a heartbeat.

See, when courts are trying to assess whether someone has a case for copyright ownership or not, they have to check the public record and see if there have been other instances of use of your copyright by other entities. If you haven’t been shown to have had due diligence in protecting your copyright, the courts can rule that it is a generic trademark.

It seems silly to think that the NFL is worried over losing a handful of dollars to a little church fundraiser, and it seems completely bizarre that restaurants and bars have to use codewords like “Game Day” or “Big Game” to talk about the biggest sporting event in America, when everyone knows what they’re talking about. But the NFL is NOT worried about the $300 the church raised, nor the $250 ad that Bill’s Bar & Grill is running in the Sunday Paper. They’re worried about the Super Bowl becoming a generic trademark, which would cost them untold fortunes for decades to come.

THIS is why companies fight like cats and dogs over intellectual property, and it’s why you should be careful and guarded with your own. Now, are Starbucks and the NFL and their ilk heavyhanded at times with how they treat the little guys who unbewittingly put their valuable copyrights at risk? Of course they are. Could they handle their situations with less brute force and a little more tact? Perhaps (though a lot of lawyers would argue that a serious tone is strictly required for such dealings). But as a branding architect and as someone who has pumped thousands of hours into helping clients build brands that reflect their life’s work and ambition, I understand the situation, and I see it as a teaching moment for anyone who owns a brand.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m trying to say is, Starbucks should partner up with these guys and serve Frappucino beer around the world. I might pay six bucks for THAT.

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