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Johnny Love Vodka Wins “Sexy Lips” Trademark Appeal Against Jim Beam

Johnny Love Beverage Company LLC (“JL”) and Jim Beam Brands Co. (“Beam”) are fighting over the right to use “sexy lips” imagery on flavored vodkas. JL’s logo (the subject of U.S. trademark registration no. 4,044,182; shown below left) dates back to 2005, and is described by Johnny Love’s creator and namesake Johnny Metheny as “definitely sexy.” Metheny apparently felt the same way about Beam’s new logo, adopted in 2011, (shown below right), and sued Beam in federal district court for trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and unfair competition.

jllips After filing suit, JL promptly moved for preliminary injunctive relief, essentially requesting that the court order Beam to stop selling products with Beam’s new logo during the pendency of the trial. Beam cross moved for summary judgment. The district court denied JL’s motion, and, in a surprise move, sustained Beam’s motion, dismissing the case and holding, “For reasons articulated in the Order denying the Preliminary Injunction, the Court determines that no issues of material fact remain which could provide Plaintiff a basis for success on any of its claims.”

beamlipsJL appealed the district court’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and, on July 14, 2016, the 9th circuit court issued its ruling, reversing the district court. The circuit court held that the district court improperly applied the preliminary injunction standard to Beam’s motion for summary judgment. The circuit court pointed out that “both [logos] have puckered, human lips as the focal point of their design; the lips have a similar angle and shape; and the lips are color-coordinated with the flavor of the vodka.” Accordingly, the circuit court found that a reasonable fact-finder could determine that Beam’s logo was confusingly similar to JL’s logo and that summary judgment was, therefore, inappropriate.

Most observers know that a lot of the good words are taken, when it comes to that delicious intersection of beverages, brands and trademarks. This case is a useful reminder that a lot of the good images (some but not all sexy lips!) are taken, as well. It is also a prime example of a little guy scoring big points on a behemoth. Judge Wallace mentioned:  “Jim Beam instructed its legal counsel to perform a clearance search for lips designs. The legal department found 40 references to lips for alcohol-related products.”

Note: With JL having now ultimately survived Beam’s motion for summary judgment, experience tells us that it would not be surprising to see the case quietly settle in the near future, with Beam moving to a design less similar to JL’s (not less sexy, just different sexy).

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Perfect Beach Reading

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For a good, edifying time, grab a bottle of craft spirits, a beach — and this book.

The book is Moonshiner to Craft Distillery: Leading Lawyers on the Business of Distilling. Aspatore Books, a division of Thomson Reuters, published the book a few weeks ago. In this book, I am pleased to be in the good company of Ryan Malkin, Gloria Materre, Alva Mather, and other notable lawyers in the alcohol beverage law field.

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Here are a few excerpts from my chapter, entitled “Reflections on Thirty Years of Spirits Law Practice:  From a Few Score to a Few Thousand Distilleries.”

Almost thirty years ago I got lucky and happened upon the hitherto unknown field (unknown at least to me) now known as beverage law. The years have passed quickly, and this is a testament to how challenging and interesting this field can be. Things have moved a long way during that time, from shuffling paper forms, digging through millions of words in black binders, and a country with a few dozen large distilleries. The law has not changed a lot, but the related law practice has changed dramatically, and so has the business climate.

This area of the law is more heavily regulated than any other aspect of consumer products law — more than guns, tobacco, or even pharmaceuticals. What other consumer product is the focus of not just one, but two, Constitutional amendments? Tobacco and marijuana do not rate even one. Thus, in looking at what laws apply most directly to moonshining and proper distilling, we must start with the Constitution and its amendment banning most forms of commercial alcohol production and sale in 1919, as well as its amendment allowing such production, subject to many rules, fourteen years later.

Federal distillery law is made up of the twin pillars of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA) which regulates labeling and permits, and the Internal Revenue Code, which obviously regulates taxes. There are hundreds of pages of regulations under the FAA Act alone, approximately fifty of which are devoted to spirits. Most of them are common sense. Even though some politicians may rail against the profusion of federal rules and intrusions, it is hard to see how anyone can deny that we need rules addressing what to do if an alcohol claims to be 80 proof, but is truly at 81 or 79 proof.

This installment of “Inside the Minds” is also available at Amazon, where it could soon be burning up the charts. Last I heard it was #1 in Books > Professions > Law > Food > Beverages > Distilled Spirits > Craft Spirits > Books Less Than 130 Pages > Books More Than 128 Pages.

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Main Tito’s Case Dismissed

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The main Tito’s Handmade Vodka case has been dismissed, after 19 months of heated litigation. Details are not available so far.

The main case was Hofmann v. Fifth Dimension, Inc. (first filed in state court in September of 2014 then removed to federal court in San Diego a month later). A second and similar case, Cabrera v. Fifth Generation, Inc., also got dismissed on the same day.

On April 22, 2016, both sides in both cases filed joint motions to dismiss. On May 3, Judge Miller of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued an order in each case, granting the parties’ joint motions.

At one point there were at least eight class action lawsuits against Tito’s Vodka, scattered around the U.S., challenging the very prominent references to “Handmade,” on the product’s labeling and advertising. There are no signs of any label changes, and Google says this has not been in the press to date.

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TTB Got Fast!

apt

Just when it seemed like TTB labels and formulas would be slow, and get slower every year — all of a sudden things look pretty fast. The above table shows that normal formulas take two weeks or less. It’s been a really long time since the processing times have been less than a month. This is a huge benefit for producers everywhere. Over on the label side, things are also getting better. This scary looking table shows that beer, wine and spirits labels were flirting with 40 and more days of processing time, toward late 2014, until the trends started to improve (things got particularly ugly here).

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As of today, TTB says the processing time for labels is right around 21 days.

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I reached out to TTB to see why things seem so much better. TTB said:

Although workloads have continued to increase since FY 2015, we have recently been able to improve our processing times in part through cross-training and because new staff hired last year are reaching full proficiency.  However, the improvements you are seeing right now are also due in large part to increased use of overtime and the temporary reassignment of staff from other mission areas, which are short term fixes until we are able to fully implement the long term solutions (such as additional personnel and IT improvements) made possible by the additional funding we received for FY 2016.

There are already millions of labels approved in the past 20 years or so, and this should be great news for everyone who wants just a few more choices.

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Trademarks All Over the Atlas

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A few months ago, big law firm Foley Hoag compiled a marvelous list of trademark scuffles, within the alcohol beverage category, during the past year. We already knew there were scores of tussles, and the list was growing ever longer, but we never quite realized how fast the casualties are stacking up. The article shows at least 50 such disputes.

Of all those, the Atlas dispute is the one that caught my eye. Because it’s local, must be crushing news for whoever lost, recent, and I had not heard about it but for the Foley article. Foley explained:

The Atlas Brewing Company of Chicago opposed Atlas Brew Works’ application to register ATLAS for beer. The Opposer alleged that “Atlas” was primarily descriptive of a geographic area within Washington D.C., which is where the Applicant is located (“Atlas” is apparently an unofficial nickname of the H Street District). The TTAB rejected this argument, finding that consumers were unlikely to make the connection. The TTAB agreed with the Opposer that there was a likelihood of confusion between the marks, but it found that the Applicant was the senior user (the TTAB did not accept the launch dates of the Opposer’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as establishing priority). The petition was dismissed. Atlas Brewing Company, LLC v. Atlas Brew Works LLC.

Upon reading the opinion, my main takeaway is that the Washington, D.C. brewer tried earnestly and in good faith to find a good brand name, but still had to contend with this expensive dispute. First, they tried VOLSTEAD but House Spirits Distillery shut that down. The Atlas tale and the Foley article further underscore the need to do no less than look around, Google it, conduct a thorough trademark search, engage a specialized lawyer, check TESS, check TTB’s Public COLA Registry, and check LabelVision, when selecting a brand name in a crowded sector. There is not much sign that either party did a particularly good job of scoping out the things that ought to be scoped out, before putting so much sweat and money into a brand, especially since it is getting so clear that disputes are common. In any event, because the Chicago brewer’s opposition was dismissed by the TTAB, it looks like the Washington brewer can shrug this off and move forward with ATLAS as their brand name.

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alcohol beverages generally, malt beverage


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