Judging by the amount of media attention directed at Dumb Starbucks over the past few says, it is clear that comedian Nathan Fielder accomplished his main goal–getting noticed. No matter that the store was closed by the Los Angeles County Health Department on Monday, February 10. Fielder hosts a Comedy Central show called “Nathan for You,” which follows Fielder as he gives awful business advice to to small-business owners, who then use that advice in dealings with customers.  By getting national media attention, Fielder has received publicity for himself and for his show, which is a convenient by-product of his so-called “parody” stunt.

For those who are not aware of the Dumb Starbucks campaign, a brief background: The story began last Friday, February 7, when the twitter account @dumbstarbucks announced its opening, tweeting about its new Dumb Starbucks location in a strip mall in Los Angeles, California. The location was set up to look and operate just like a regular Starbucks both outside and inside: the green awning, the exact Starbucks font and Starbucks logo, replicas of Starbucks menus, and even down to the Dumb Norah Jones CDs for sale by the register. Other than a FAQ sheet (which explained that Dumb Starbucks was not affiliated with Starbucks and claimed that Dumb Starbucks was a protected parody) that was available to patrons, no explanation of the location was given until Fielder announced its relation to his show on Monday. Fielder claimed that the entire concept was a work of art, and that his use of the Starbucks name and logo was protected as a parody under the First Amendment.

Starbucks, a notoriously litigious company, has proceeded cautiously here. At the moment, the point is moot, given the store’s closing. However, Fielder has made remarks indicating a desire to open another Dumb Starbucks in Brooklyn, N.Y. If he does so, and Starbucks decides to take legal action, what would their options be?

First, Starbucks could claim that Dumb Starbucks is infringing its trademarked logo and its stores’ trade dress. While not unreasonable, given that Dumb Starbucks has appropriated the entirety of the name and logo for its own use, trademark law centers on whether the improper use of a mark causes confusion among consumers. In this case, while consumers may have been confused about who exactly was behind Dumb Starbucks, they did know that it was not Starbucks. Second, Starbucks could claim that Dumb Starbucks is diluting its mark. Dilution, unlike infringement, targets the use of a famous mark that does not cause confusion among consumers, but still harms the original mark. Because of this, dilution might be a stronger avenue for legal challenge. Finally, Starbucks also has copyrights on its identifying logos. Unlike trademarks, copyrights are intended to give a monopoly to creators of original work and have little to do with consumer confusion. Again, given Dumb Starbucks’ wholesale borrowing of Starbucks’s logos and art, Starbucks might have a decent copyright infringement case.

But whether Starbucks could successfully bring suit does not necessarily mean that it should. The store in Los Angeles has already been shut down, and the entire ordeal was clearly a stunt meant to promote a television show. Fielder’s opening another store would clearly lack the element of surprise necessary to gain such attention again. Rather, by waiting this one out, Starbucks may be able to come out of this no worse for the wear while looking like it has a bit of a sense of humor.

What do you think? Clearly infringement? Dilution? Should Starbucks crack down?

–Stewart Bohan


One Response to Dumb Starbucks: A Smart Move, or Blatant Infringement?

  1. Jeff says:

    Stewart, this has been such a fun event to watch. What do you think about the implications of failing to respond to such a blatant use of Starbucks iconography? It seems that sometimes rights holders feel obligated to overpolice their IP in order to preserve their rights. There are pleasant ways to do it (http://www.jetlaw.org/2012/07/30/jack-daniels-sends-a-pleasant-cease-and-desist-letter-a-win-win/), but I’d love to read the opinions deciding the case if it goes to court.

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