When a company takes legal action over a perceived trademark infringement, it is sometimes accused of being a bully.
A pub in the St. Louis area began selling a drink with a name similar to a Starbucks drink name. So Starbucks sent a cease-and desist letter to the owner. In the world of intellectual property, a cease-and-desist letter is a routine first step in defending a trademark against infringement. These types of letters are sent all the time and are rarely newsworthy.
The sending of the Starbucks letter, however, was picked up by news media and the result was a little storm of bad publicity, with Starbucks being accused of heavy-handedly overreacting. Public sentiment favored the pub owner and the account read like a David and Goliath story.
My first reaction was, “but, trademark infringement is wrong, isn’t it?” My next thought was, “wait a minute, who is overreacting here?” A cease-and-desist letter is not heavy-handed. It’s a warning shot, the smallest warning shot possible, really. It is intended to stop an infringement at its earliest stage, to nip it in the bud, before costly litigation becomes necessary.
As I learned in intellectual property class at the community college, if a company does not vigorously defend its trademarks against even small infringements, it can have a harder time defending them later from more significant threats. Failure to defend a trademark in the early stages of infringement can weaken a trademark suit later in court.
But Americans love an underdog. A little guy is often perceived as the good guy and a big corporation is seen as the bad guy for no other reason than size. It’s a well-worn Hollywood stereotype: small is good, big is bad. The bigger, the badder.
On the other hand, might this little hoo-ha over a Starbucks trademark be more than just an example of the underdog effect at work? Could it also be an indication that many do not view intellectual property as legitimate property? And that infringement is not really wrong? I suspect so.
The truth is, intellectual property, be it a trademark or a copyright, is property in every sense of the word. It can be bought, sold or leased. It can be bequeathed, inherited, left in a will. In some cases it can have great value. It is worthy of protection, just like any piece of property that has value.
If someone broke into the offices of a large real estate company and stole a dozen “For Sale” signs, who would blame the company for prosecuting the thief? Would the company be accused of being a bully, of overreacting? Yet, to a company like ReMax Real Estate its trademarks are far more valuable than a few yard signs. That’s why it is known for aggressively pursuing infringers. A trademark may be one of a company’s most valuable assets. It has been estimated that the Coca-Cola logo is worth 70 billion dollars. Is it any wonder that a company would take measures to protect such a valuable asset?
I believe that many people do not fully appreciate that intellectual property really is property. A house or land, even a car is easier for them to think of as property, because you can see and touch these things. The loss of these is often difficult to recover from financially.
For a business, the loss of valued trademarks could inflict irreparable damage. It is no wonder that for certain types of willful trademark infringement in the US, the penalties can be in the millions of dollars.