Anarchy in the UK as BrewDog Slammed Over Trademark Disputes

Austin Ray

THE GIST
BrewDog’s reputation as the shit-starting antagonist of Big Corporate Beer might have taken some bumps this week. The Scottish craft brewery is dealing with calls of hypocrisy over a pair of legal actions it took against two much smaller companies over naming disputes. This type of behavior, critics have been suggesting, makes BrewDog look an awful lot like the faceless international brewing conglomerates it has long claimed to oppose.

WHY IT MATTERS
It all started Sunday when The Guardian reported BrewDog had threatened legal action against a family run pub called Lone Wolf, claiming the branding would cause confusion with its own vodka line of the same name. Then days later, in an apparent mission to deconstruct BrewDog’s rebellious anti-corporate image, The Guardian followed that first story with a report that BrewDog had also threatened legal action back in December against a then-forthcoming but since-cancelled pub called Draft Punk, citing similar concerns as it relates to BrewDog’s Punk IPA. (BrewDog disputes this report, but more on that in a second.)

Unsurprisingly, many have since taken to social media to voice concern over one of the UK’s largest breweries coming down on smaller companies that they believe present no legitimate threat to business. That criticism is compounded by the fact that, when on the other side of the gun, BrewDog has acted every bit the pugnacious hooligan you’d expect.

In fact, this past October, co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie both legally changed their names to “Elvis” in response to a notice it received from rock n’ roll legend Elvis Presley’s estate that took unkindly to a BrewDog beer called Elvis Juice.

“Here at BrewDog,” the company wrote at the time, “we don’t take too kindly to petty pen pushers attempting to make a fast buck by discrediting our good name under the guise of copyright infringement.”

This dichotomy hasn’t been lost on the crowd, as many have been lobbing accusations that BrewDog has evolved into “just another corporate bully” Which is to say: the very type of business the company says it was explicitly founded to stand against.

Each case is different, though.

With regards to Lone Wolf, the family-run pub, BrewDog contends it’s fine with the name, and pinned blame for the action on “trigger happy lawyers.” “Hands up, we made a mistake here in how we acted,” BrewDog wrote in a statement Wednesday.

“We should take the view to only enforce if something really detrimental to our business is happening. And here, I do not think that was the case.” But BrewDog had already won the bout, as Lone Wolf Pub had, in early March, rebranded as The Wolf. As such, it voiced dissatisfaction with an earlier mea culpa, tweeting “Shame we had to spend money rebranding because of ‘lawyers.’” (BrewDog also says it has “offered to cover all of the costs of the bar”).

As it pertains to Draft Punk, BrewDog is standing its ground. “There was no bar here, and no ‘cease and desist’ from our side,” the company says. “The other party tried to register ‘Draft Punk’ as a trademark, but we own the ‘Punk’ trademark for beer, so naturally we objected as that is one of our trademarks.” Furthermore, in the Guardian piece, the would-be proprietor of the Draft Punk bar suggested BrewDog is out of line for trying to “own” the word punk, saying, “They can’t own punk, that’s the whole point.” BrewDog’s counter: “this is pretty ironic given that they were trying to register Punk.”

Now, setting aside for a moment the obvious and humorous fact that trying to own the word “punk” for monetary gain, whether you’re a large brewery or upstart pub in planning, is inherently at odds with the word’s meaning, BrewDog obviously has the right to protect its own marks. Brewers of all sizes do this all the time. Unfortunately for Watt and Dickie, though, they’ve sort of dug themselves in a hole here, as BrewDog has always very willfully positioned itself as an outsider, a “punk,” even as it has grown into one of the most recognizable craft beer brands on the planet. This predicament raises some interesting questions. Chief among them: What is a business to do when financial interest runs counter to company philosophy? It’s tough to say. But BrewDog will likely be fine either way, as it continues to create its own global empire. For punks, of course.

—Dave Eisenberg

READ MORE
BrewDog threatened lawsuit against plan for bar with ‘punk’ in name [The Guardian]
BrewDog backs down over Lone Wolf pub trademark dispute [The Guardian]
Please don’t steal our trademarks [BrewDog]