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Starbucks v. Starbarks: Trademark Infringement by Doggie Day Care?

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Starbucks made the coffee in this blogger’s cup. It’s also probably currently in the cups of about a hundred million people across the globe. Within walking distance of this computer, there are five Starbucks locations. The name “Starbucks” is as almost as well-known as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

So why are they targeting a doggie day care in the village of Algonquin? The local small business chose a too-familiar name: Starbarks, reports the Daily Herald. A single-letter difference differentiates the coffee behemoth from the diminutive doggie day care.

Also take a look at the logo:

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Courtesy of the Daily Herald

The similarities are obvious. According to the Sun-Times, the owner proposed changing the sign to yellow and replacing the stars with doggie paws. Cute, but not good enough for Starbucks’ legal team.

Why the hard-handedness against a tiny business in Illinois? Is the daycare really harming Starbucks?

Probably not. Still, the theory that motivates Starbucks’ actions is the “dilution of trademark” theory. Under this theory, if a company fails to enforce its trademark, eventually the cumulative infringement of enough small businesses could render the trademark invalid and worthless. For example, aspirin and elevator used to be protected trademarks. Now, they are everyday nouns.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t Starbucks’ first trip to trademark court. They previously convinced an Arizona doggie daycare to change its name from Starbarks (déjà vu) and won a case against Sam Buck’s Coffee as well. Though the owner of Starbarks in Algonquin thinks the entire dispute is ridiculous, according to the Daily Herald, she is considering alternative names to avoid litigation.

Had she chosen to fight, she might have had a case under the parody exception to trademark infringement. In parody cases, “a parody must convey two simultaneous — and contradictory — messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody.” In other words, it must clearly reference the original while also communicating that it is a parody.

For example, see the case of Spam versus Spa’am. The former is a meat product; the latter is a Muppets character meant to satirize the tame luncheon meat. The Muppets won because the satirical product was clearly advertised as a Muppet and not a meat product.

Obviously, Starbarks doggie day care is not in the coffee business. It is advertised as a doggie day care on all relevant media, including the company’s website. There is arguably no threat of consumer confusion. Then again, fighting a battle over parody would probably cost more than changing a few signs and a web page.

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