Being a Grand Rapids small business can be scary. It’s a big world and you are looking to carve your own niche in it. There are any number of obstacles that you can run into and trademark issues are just some of them. With around 30 million small businesses in the United States there is bound to be some businesses that cross paths with their branding. But what about larger companies that are looking to eliminate anyone that carries any similarities to their branding?
Grand Rapids bar owner, Brett Alward, has gotten a crash course in these types of matters. Alward is the owner of the soon to be former Sazerac Lounge located on Grand Rapids’ Northeast Side. The Sazerac is a rye whiskey mixed-drink that is known as the oldest known American cocktail and is the official cocktail of New Orleans. As a fan of New Orleans, Alward decided to name his bar, which was opened in 2005, after this iconic cocktail. About a year ago he was contacted by a Los Angeles law firm that represented the New Orleans based Sazerac Company regarding their claim that Alward’s bar was infringing on the Sazerac Company’s trademark.
While there are plenty of weaknesses in this claim by the Sazerac Company, which is better known for its subsidiaries distilling prowess over its cocktail mixing, Alward has given up the battle. (The most obvious of these weaknesses is these two businesses do not compete with one another so customer confusion seems tough to prove). The fact is Alward is a victim of what is commonly becoming called “trademark bullying.”
While as a business you have a right to protect your branding, marks and devices, there is a growing trend for bigger businesses to eliminate smaller entities use of anything closely resembling their brand. In this case, the Sazerac Company is looking to gain a monopoly on the word “Sazerac” both inside and outside of their industry. This is not the first time that the Sazerac Company has tried muscled smaller businesses around. They have developed quite the reputation for this tactic and are currently in litigation with a competitor over the use of the word “sin.”
The reason that Alward and other small business owners are forced to drop their fights is simple economics. Alward estimates that it will cost him around $6,000 to rebrand his bar while litigation costs would easily run in the tens of thousands of dollars if not more. With that higher cost, there is also no guarantee of a favorable outcome.
While there is some legislative rumblings of possible laws to help protect small businesses from these bullying tactics there is nothing imminent. Small businesses should always try to avoid anything close to infringing on another’s brand. When a situation arises though, a small business can attempt to come to some sort of resolution that makes both parties happy. If it is a trademark bullying situation then a favorable resolution is highly unlikely. A good business advisor will be able to do some due diligence to advise a client the likelihood of success or if a contingency plan should be executed.
Source: “Sazerac Lounge in Grand Rapids forced to rebrand after getting 'bullied' by Louisiana company over trademark” by Garret Ellison of Mlive.com