A couple of weeks ago, Lagunitas Brewing owner Tony Magee did something unthinkable. He threatened legal action within the craft beer community.
Did Tony propose litigation that was going to forever wipe Pliny from the face of existence? Had he filed an injunction to cease the GABF? No,he simply was wondering if another brewery had possibly come up with a packaging for their new beer that might have come to close to the packaging he has branded for one of his.
And a portion of the craft beer community went bat-shit crazy.
For those who some how missed all of the who-struck-John between Lagunitas Brewing and defendant Sierra Nevada (actually, if you did consider yourself lucky) here it is in a nutshell. Lagunitas was a bit miffed that the lettering on the right looked in their mind too much like the lettering on the left.
Don’t see it? Don’t feel bad. Apparently, a lot of other people didn’t see it as well. So much so, that Tony discovered himself heatedly defending his position on social media from people who were calling him a “dickhead”, to people who were threatening to stop buying Lagunitas’ beers because of his actions, to everyone in between.
And while all this was going on, through all the stone throwing and name calling, between all the character assassination and venom spewing, I just kept asking one question…
Why do you people care so much?
When I wrote the original drafts of this post, it was full of examples of breweries not playing well together (how about when Sierra Nevada trademarked “Narwhal Stout”, you remember, when they pulled the rug out from under Narwhal Brewing), and paragraphs on how important branding is (ever recognize a six-pack of Flying Dog beer from across the liquor store? OK, you get it then). But I don’t think that should be necessary.
In fact, I almost scrapped this post because I’ve been working on it for so long that the topic is almost moot. Lagunitas has dropped the matter and all is good. But to be honest, the aftermath is even more disturbing to me.
That’s Tony, talking like a repentant, punished little boy because his lawsuit was found frivolous and without merit. Not in a court of law where it should have been judged, but in the court of social media.
And I don’t know which is sadder, that some people lashed out at Tony for his threat to take Sierra Nevada to court, or that after he’d dropped the legal action some people feel like they’ve done the right thing, and are claiming this as some kind of victory.
When Tony announced his intention, he was judged by everyone who had a Twitter or Facebook account who believed that somehow, that entitled them to a vote in the matter. And as these cases normally go, it appeared that the people with the most negative feelings towards Lagunitas were the ones most vocal.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have an opinion on the matter, and I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t voice that opinion on social media (what else is social media for). But this is an example of how social media gets all “torches and pitchforks” in an area where it would be best if most of those in the mob would just keep their fingers quiet.
Let’s run down a few things:
1 – Lagunitas had every right to challenge Sierra Nevada.
“Right” is the word I want to emphasis here. Protecting one’s brand is a given in the business world, and businesses do it all the time. To get all pissed at someone because they want to make sure that another company is not infringing on something they’ve worked long and hard to establish is not only on the surface ridiculous, but actually narrow minded. I mean, it’s OK if you look at the evidence and say, “I don’t see it.” But in my opinion its quite another to spiral down to the level of bullies complete with name calling, stone throwing and threats. It’s not necessary to act like Tony walked into your house and kicked your dog.
2 – Lagunitas should not have backed down.
After the social media backlash by offended people, Tony Magee announced that he was withdrawing the lawsuit because in his words:
I believe from the context that Tony is referring about the “Court” of public opinion which is, sorry, in some cases the absolute worst “Court” to listen too. Most of the people bashing Tony for his decision are probably people who have no real knowledge of the business world or have never owned anything to the extent that they’ve had to protect it in a court of law. They’re just pissed because Tony is tarnishing their illusion that all is unicorns and rainbows in the craft beer world. That’s right, I said illusion. More on that in a moment.
If Tony truly felt that Sierra Nevada was infringing on his branding, he should have stood his ground instead of caving to all the hate that was tossed at him, especially by a bunch of people who immediately went to their final sanction which was to stop buying his beers because he wasn’t playing nice. Many of whom probably haven’t purchased a Lagunitas beer in months. That’s right. You know you haven’t. We can subpena your Untappd feed.
Maybe the court would have ruled in favor of Tony. Maybe not. YOU don’t know. I don’t know. But what I DO know is the best time to challenge (and hopefully settle) Trademark disputes is early on, not after they have mushroomed into serious issues that do require costly, prolonged legal battles.
And those disputes should be settled between the breweries, and when that is not possible, in a court. Not on someone’s twitter feed.
3 – Nobody is wearing white shirts here.
Everyone is quick to defend Sierra Nevada because they believed that in this case they are in the right. But like I’ve written above, Sierra Nevada has had their own checkered past when it’s come to dealing with brewers over Trademark matters.
And when it comes to legal entanglements they’re not alone. (OK, so I didn’t totally remove all the examples of breweries not playing well together as I stated above, sue me)
Magic Hat went after the West Sixth brewery in Kentucky over Trademark issues, causing West Sixth to make a small modification to their proposed label. Coronado Brewing went after Elysian over the word “Idiot”. Unita Brewing changed the name of its IPA from Hop Notch to Hop Nosh after a complaint from Notch Brewing.
In fact, these types of legal dealings are not unique between craft beer brewers, they can happen between anyone in the beer business no matter what the business is, even between a homebrew shop and a craft brewer.
So much for unicorns and rainbows. But in all the cases I’ve mentioned above, what happened? The issues were settled and business went on. Which leads me to:
4 – The worst that could have come out of all this was probably nothing.
I’ve said above that I don’t know what would have happened if this situation was allowed to play out, but actually that’s a lie. I can (with fair certainty) tell you exactly what would have happened:
Either Lagunitas would back down (what happened) and business would have carried on.
Or Sierra Nevada would have backed down and business would have carried on.
Or they would have settled and business would have carried on.
Or Lagunitas would have won and business would have carried on.
Or Lagunitas would have lost and business would have carried on.
And the worst ramification from any of these scenarios would have been that we would have had to wait a little while longer for Hop Hunter to be released if the outcome hadn’t favored Sierra Nevada or, well nothing.
Sure, there might have been some hard feelings between Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada, and those wounds may have hung around for a long time. But in the grand scheme of things all that may have done was insure that Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada would not have clogged the beer shelves with another cash grab collaboration beer in the foreseeable future.
Was Tony without fault in this situation? In my mind, no. But to me it wasn’t that he took legal action against another member of the craft brewing fraternity no, it was his attempts to justify those actions in the world of social media. His best move would have been to simply do what a lot of other companies do when they find themselves in a similar situation:
We do not comment in public on pending legal matters concerning our brewery. We hope that this matter comes to swift and satisfying conclusion for all parities so that we can go back to focusing on what we our business is all about, producing the best beers we can for our valued costumers.
And then just walked away and let the matter take its course. Whatever your feelings on the legitimacy of Lagunitas’ claim, in my mind the people who attempted to bully Tony into dropping this matter acted poorly. And I hope that his final decision in this matter was based on input and advice from his councils and his lawyers, not because a bunch of irate people (who are in the minority anyway because there are large portion of people who drink craft beer don’t know and don’t care about anything in the business beyond what beer they’re drinking this weekend) threatened to not buy his products in the future.
Because a lot of them probably weren’t going to anyway.