The other day in the beer news post I wrote (edited for shortness): “Full Sail Brewing out of Hood River has apparently taken steps to get a small Rhode Island brewery to change its name. I doubt that beer from the two companies would be confused (or identities diluted). Overall I’m surprised that Full Sail would have even moved on something like this!” I had emailed Full Sail that same day, and Founder/CEO Irene Firmat was kind enough to get back to me and we talked a bit about the news yesterday. Suffice to say, my original statement is wrong in how I characterized the issue, and the “confusion/dilution” I mentioned isn’t as clear-cut as one would think.
But first, the root of the issue is sourced from this article:
Tensions flared in late April when Jennifer Brinton, owner of Grey Sail Brewing Co. on Canal Street, received a phone call from the owner of Full Sail Brewing Co., a microbrewery in Hood River, Ore. Brinton says she was led to believe that if she did not agree to change her business’ name she would face a court battle.
Feeling threatened, Brinton and her husband, Alan, spoke with their lawyers and then decided to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Providence, asking a judge to render a decision stating Grey Sail’s name and logo do not infringe on those of Full Sail Brewing Co. Efforts to settle the dispute out of court are ongoing and a hearing on the case is scheduled for June 27.
This article, and various derivatives that have also appeared, give the impression that Full Sail is the Big Bad Brewery attempting to bully the Little Brewery-slash-underdog into submission, which is certainly the characterization my own post presented. However that’s not the case.
After speaking with Firmat, and doing some web research, there’s a clearer picture that emerges:
- Full Sail owns a number of trademarks on their name (and variations thereof) and imagery—which includes a “sail” icon very similar to what Grey Sail is using in their branding.
- As trademark holders are required to do (at risk of losing those trademarks), they need to enforce their trademarks. In this case, rather than have the legal department call up Grey Sail, Firmat called up Brinton to see what could be done and try to work things out.
- Grey Sail instead decided to take legal action and sue Full Sail, asking a judge to deem that their name and/or logo do not infringe on Full Sail’s trademark(s).
In other words, Full Sail was doing what they were, as a business, obligated to do, though in an amicable, avoid-the-lawyers way. In responding by suing Full Sail, Grey Sail has become the agressor in this situation. And it’s interesting to note that Firmat pointed out to me that this is the first in their 25 years of doing business that they’ve been sued; she stressed that they’ve always tried to be very respectful to all in the business and always try to reach out and talk about such issues before anything else.
Grey Sail has been open only since November 2011, and frankly I have to wonder about the sort of small business that would immediately sue in a situation like this; it seems to me that even if they win their lawsuit, they’ll be out a probably-not-insignificant amount of money, and will have gained the reputation as being the brewery that sues others rather than working with them to find a solution to issues.
Some caveats: I didn’t ask Firmat which of the Full Sail trademarks was at the root of the issue (name, logo/graphics, or both); nor did I ask her specifically what the content of the call was—i.e., what Firmat said to Brinton.
As for the trademarks, we can speculate a bit and it’s useful to compare some imagery for perspective. Here’s a primary graphic mark Full Sail has trademarked:
Which is fairly iconic, something they’ve had in use since their inception in 1987, and appears fairly prominently in their brands, like their current overall brand logo:
Compare with the Grey Sail logo:
Minus the boat you’ve got a prominent sail image in the center of the graphic. It’s close, and when combined with their name I think there’s enough cause that a trademark-holding company has to move to protect their mark, even if it seems like a good-faith coincidence. Really, there’s no other “___ Sail Brewing Company” registered out there so even if “sail” is a generic term, the overall four-word name structure could conceivably be a problem.
And I’m sure this is just a coincidence:
(The Full Sail label comes from BeerLabels.com, which is a great site.)
A hearing for the legal case is scheduled for June 27. I’ll try to keep abreast of it and post updates accordingly.