‘The Kerning…ing’: An Amateur’s Look at the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada Complaint

So are you saying all IPAs look alike?

Updated 1/14/15: Late in the evening of 1/13, Tony Magee took to Twitter to announce that Lagunitas would not continue its legal proceedings against Sierra Nevada. For whatever I thought of Magee’s tone in public statements related to the suit, I am a fan of his and Lagunitas (as well as a longtime Sierra Nevada fan) and I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness to read his statement that 1/13 was “the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery.” 

Discussing the merits of the case seems moot now that it’s not going forward, but there’s a very good analysis offered here. Regardless, I think the precedent set may have been a dangerous one: as fans and enthusiasts, we simply don’t see the business aspects of the industry in rational terms. I respect Magee’s decision to drop the case (and thank him for the nice note he dropped in my Twitter account’s DM box that I can’t reply to), but hope the decision doesn’t come back to bite him later on. 

For now, we’re left to take away whatever conclusions we see fit and move on to the next thing. I wish all the best for both breweries, and encourage everyone to listen to this podcast interview with Magee from December–with his perspective on the state of the industry, and how he sees the role of breweries like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada going forward as the industry grows. It’s worth a listen.

Now, the original post from 1/13/15/. –Nick 

————————————————

So, this happened. A quick heads up: those looking for HOT TAEKS just move along now, as this post is basically going to take many words to say what Hipster Brewfus said here (albeit in a slightly less contentious manner).

It’s easy to be cynical about the Lagunitas complaint filed against Sierra Nevada over the labeling of its new Hop Hunter IPA; there are times when it seems there is nothing beer fans enjoy more than getting pissed off at brewers/breweries/retailers/distributors/each other. Lines are drawn; sides are taken. Nothing is accomplished save for online chest-puffery and desperate attempts at getting the last word.

I’m not going to take sides; I don’t think there’s any real basis for doing so here outside of one’s own personal biases/opinions. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts, no one will likely ever hear much about this no matter the outcome; at heart, this is an ‘inside baseball’ story that is only interesting in that it represents a look into the future of a growing industry. So let’s break it down:

What We Know

For good, more in-depth analysis of the complaint, check out Brendan Palfreyman’s Twitter timeline.  I’ve had the chance to read through the complaint myself; I’m not even close to a lawyer so I’m not going to make any declarations to that end, but it is an interesting document nonetheless. Here are some takeaways:

-“When Lagunitas began selling its now iconic IPA beer in 1995, there existed only a handful of other brewers who produced an India Pale Ale, and, on information and belief, no other company had marketed or sold its India Pale Ale using the acronym ‘IPA.'” Forgetting the first half of that statement, it’s the second part that is interesting here. I was a high school freshman/sophomore in 1995, so I missed a lot of the establishment of what today are the ‘bigger’ names in so-called ‘craft’ beer. The idea of Lagunitas specifically staking a claim to something like “the acronym IPA” had never even entered my mind until this morning.

-“…Lagunitas IPA has become the Company’s flagship beer. It is available year-round and has been the top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade—and one of the best-selling India Pale Ales in the nation.” Not a lawyer alert: I don’t know what kind of legal threshold a document like this has to clear, but I’d love to see the numbers on that “top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade” claim. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d just never heard any similar claim and wonder what that list looks like.

-“While other brewers have adopted the shorthand parlance of “IPA” to market their India Pale Ales, only Lagunitas is identified with the large, bold, black, centralized “IPA” lettering…In addition to its distinguishable IPA beer, much of the success of the Lagunitas IPA can be attributed to its iconic “IPA” family of trademarks.” Again, something I guess I’ve just always taken for granted given the ubiquity and history of Lagunitas in my home market, but when I think about it…I can’t argue with that.

-“Lagunitas is well-known for using its distinctive “IPA” lettering in a manner that it is the center and focal point of the overall design. The unique “IPA” lettering used in the Lagunitas “IPA” Family of Trademarks has a distinctive serif font, distinctive kerning (or letter spacing), between the “P” and the “A”, slightly aged or weathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and the elimination of any periods between the letters. These elements together are unique to the iconic design of the Lagunitas IPA.” Here we have the beating heart of Lagunitas’ argument. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

-This isn’t the first time Lagunitas has shut down someone’s “IPA” label: In November 2012, Tony Magee of Lagunitas took issue with Knee Deep’s IPA label, saying it was a little too close to his own. The Knee Deep case was a little more cut-and-dry perhaps, but still–we know Lagunitas will go to bat for what it perceives as its most important symbol.

-Intellectual Property (IP) law is insane and needs reforming–Not a lawyer alert (again): As I understand it, the way things are now, if you have a trademark and there’s any chance of another company infringing upon it, you have to make a case out of it. If you don’t protect your trademarks, you leave yourself open to abuse by any number of competitors. We’ll get back to this later in terms of public perception.

What We Can Infer (aka What We’ll be Arguing About Online)

-Tony takes this stuff personally: If you’re into beer at all, you know either from hanging out on forums or by following him on Twitter just how personally Tony Magee takes his business. That bleeds into the complaint in passages like these:

“The founder and current Chief Executive Officer of Lagunitas, Tony Magee, followed a different path for the Company’s flagship beer and designed the labels to prominently feature the acronym ‘IPA.'”

“Indeed, Lagunitas has invested substantial amounts of time and millions of dollars in promoting the Lagunitas IPA with the Lagunitas “IPA” family of trademarks. Lagunitas is unique among many of its competitors in that the Company’s founder, Tony Magee, still designs the beer labels and strives to instill personality into each of the beer recipes and the corresponding labels and packaging the Company makes.” 

Magee’s been very vocal in the past about breweries encroaching on what he sees as ‘his’ turf–the American IPA. Whether he’s right to see it that way or not is, of course, a matter of perspective.

-The Hop Hunter label is a departure from the regular Sierra Nevada branding: I’d only taken a passing notice of Hop Hunter’s label when I first read about it a couple weeks ago. I was more excited by the prospect of a potentially game-changing year-round ‘Wet Hop’ IPA–I think all of us were. In Lagunitas’ complaint, however, it is noted just how much different Hop Hunter’s packaging looks compared to other Sierra Nevada IPAs:

One of these things is definitely not like the others, but does that mean anything?

In and of itself, that drew a big “who cares?” from many–myself included. What I hadn’t thought of was the similarity between Hop Hunter’s label and the Sierra Nevada ‘Beer Camp’ collaboration labels:

hmmm…

“Particularly given this reputation for collaboration with other brewers, and based upon the obvious similarities to the Lagunitas ‘IPA’ Family of Trademarks, there exists a great likelihood that consumers mistakenly will believe that the ‘Hop Hunter IPA’ is a collaboration with Lagunitas, and, thereby, sponsored or approved by Lagunitas. This creates a consumer-perceived connection between the two breweries, thus providing Sierra Nevada with a shortcut to consumer acceptance of their India Pale Ale offering.”  I’m not sure I ever would’ve seen it if they didn’t call it out, but now that you mention it…

So What Does this Mean, if Anything? 

Like I said earlier, I’m not here to take sides or blast anyone. I will say for those out there who dismiss the complaint out-of-hand because ‘they don’t look that much alike’ to look at the image up top again and bear this in mind from a retailer with over 10 years in this business: people don’t read.

I’ll say it again: people don’t read. I write a weekly newsletter letting consumers who signed up for it know what new arrivals we’re getting in our shop that week, along with a listing of what beers I’ll be sampling that weekend. With the new arrivals, I include pricing, what day the beer will arrive, and if there are any purchasing limits applicable. I then immediately start getting phone calls or email replies asking how much something costs, or if a beer is coming in that day or the next, or how many bottles they can buy, or what I’m sampling that Saturday. We’re all busy; we all don’t have the time to parse over every newsletter or offering we get in our inboxes. We see what we want to see then move along to the next thing we have to do.

A co-worker saw me looking over a story about the complaint and scoffed “Oh GOD–beer people are so bad.” Then I showed them the picture of the sixers up top and they said “You know, at first glance I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.” Substitute the average consumer at their local grocery store or independent retailer for my co-worker and you see why Tony Magee and Lagunitas filed this complaint; if there’s even a chance that a competitor’s packaging can be seen as infringing upon your trademark, you have to do something.

That said, Magee does Lagunitas no favors when he takes to Twitter to throw stuff like this out (stitched together from his timeline during the day on 1/13/15):

“Trademarks r a big part of what craft brewers do…like a cattle brand or aboriginal peeps tattoo. The 1st TM was Bass Ale’s ‘red triangle’. It represents an awful lot. It’s how u know us as individuals. Maker’s-marks were like that in medieval craft guilds. Identity is subtle biz…We TM’d our IPA as a ‘design mark’. Can’t claim the letters. 1000’s of us make IPAs. Most have found their own cool way t say it w/strength. That work is a genuine tribute to the forces of creativity present in CraftBrewing today. That voice of the individual brewer is very pure. Finding a uniquely individual voice is hard in life&even harder in design: a visual language w/o words. Archetypes. Symbols. Cypheric memes. When doin sumpin new its best to build fr the ground up. It’s time-consuming. Easier to use a sky-hook and lever up on someone else’s works. But there’s a certain cheapness to that & u don’t own the ground you stand on, cuz there is no ground. But it’s easier. And it’s cheaper. Can you imagine what would happen if I used a crown logo or a golden scroll or a red star or a red triangle or a harp on my own label?There would be hell to pay and we’d have it coming…This is a course of action I did not want to take- I tried to work w Ken (Grossman of Sierra Nevada) without succes. Deeply saddened and & I wish it was otherwise.” 

All Magee needed to say was the last sentence of that, along with something to the effect of “If you don’t protect your trademarks against EVERY perceived infringement, they mean nothing. It will be resolved in time.” For its part, Sierra Nevada released a terse statement essentially saying “We’ve been making IPAs since ’81, and put it in big letters on the label so folks know they’re getting an IPA because kidz today like teh IPAs.” (Not a knock; I actually enjoyed the brevity of the statement and suspect brevity was the point.)

These are two of the breweries that got me into beer. I’ve never had anything but great interactions with the folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with from both breweries over the years. I like to think Sierra Nevada designed Hop Hunter’s packaging to stand out in its lineup because as a new year-round beer there’s a lot riding on it (if it’s as good as I’ve heard, they’ve got a winner on their hands) and they wanted to brand it strongly, rather than specifically targeting Lagunitas IPA. I like to think Magee reached out to Grossman early enough that there was a genuine opportunity for Sierra to redo the label if it so chose, rather than spring a complaint against them and their potentially ‘game-changing’ beer at the last-minute.

As usual you’re right, Dwayne.

Fair enough. Here’s what I know: while this case isn’t interesting in-and-of itself, it merits watching because with the growth of ‘craft’, ‘crafty’, ‘artisanal’ beer or whatever you want to call it, this is far from the last time two big players have at each other–and as the business gets bigger, the fights will get uglier.

The future is bright, but it’s far from clean.

Until next time.

 

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2 responses to “‘The Kerning…ing’: An Amateur’s Look at the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada Complaint

  1. Just as in the case of Strange Homebrewing in Massachusetts vs. Strange Brewing in Denver or Ass Hat Brewing vs. Georgetown Brewing re: supposed theft of THE NUMBER NINE(!)(?), it’s my firm contention that most of these disputes arise from some business owner’s irrational conviction that his brand, label, product, etc.,is FAR more universally known and celebrated than it actually is. Strange Homebrew Supply tried (fecklessly, arrogantly) to claim that Strange Brewing “stole” its name from their “world-famous” company, when actually BOTH firms stole the name from either A) the old Cream song, or B) the movie starring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. In what rational universe does the owner of a tiny homebrewing store 3,000 miles from Denver become convinced that a brewery owner is trying to profit from his massive reputation? And what kind of moron gets the two confused, as the homebrew yokel tried to claim? Same here. In the first place, what consumer gives a rat’s ass that Sierra Nevada’s label bears a vague resemblance to Lagunitas’? We’re not confused and thinking that it’s a collaboration, based merely on the style or the – For the Love of God!!- the KERNING of the letters. I had a very lucrative sideline for well over 30 years as a graphic designer, designing logos and packaging for dozens of candy, textile, and beverage manufacturers. I didn’t ONCE think “Aha, Lagunitas!” when I saw that Sierra Nevada label. What I thought was, “God, what a fucking BORING design.”

    I can understand the need to protect your “intellectual property” (a phrase that deserves a slow and agonizing death) and your name and have said so, on occasion, as when the dumbasses at Trinity Brewing tried to label a beer as “La Merle”, didn’t even bother to google the name for conflicts, and then whined like little, tiny girls when mean ol’ North Coast enjoined them from using the name. But that was EXACTLY the same name. If they had named it “La Merde” (which would have been witty and funny and edgy) and North Coast had sent a C&D, I would have blasted North Coast. But LL Saison Dipshit practically begged to be slapped sideways. In this case, yeah, there’s a passing similarity…SO?!? I love the heck outta Tony Magee but he needs to pull his head out of his ass about perceived infringements and consider if engendering ill will within his own culture is too much like the bird that shits in its own nest.

    • Today also brought a resolution b/t Anchor and City Steam Brewery, which will apparently change its name to Citysteam under threat of suit even though Anchor has no trademark protection to the ‘Steam Beer’ name/phrase besides money to drag out legal cases.

      Reactions like yours are why Tony decided to drop the suit; I take him at his word when he says he’s listening to his customers–with the money tied up in putting together the suit in the first place, there’s little other reason not to go forward with it. But there will be more and more of these incidents, and some brewery owners won’t care what people think in the face of defending their IP. It’s gonna get ‘interesting’.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment–I hadn’t heard that story about Le Merle before.

      -Nick

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