Somehow I managed to find a few minutes yesterday to catch up on Facebook posts in hopes of temporarily suspending or at least slowing the scroll. Believe it or not, I really do like almost all of my old friends and try to stay connected to what they’re up to and how many times they’ve shopped at Costco for vastly underrated steaks. As you might suspect, one or two of them share my interest in craft beer so I wasn’t surprised to see my old Audi TT buddy, Jason, post a status update involving Magic Hat. They’ve never impressed me as anything more than modestly mediocre and after selling out to what’s now a South American conglomerate they’ve lost their identity but I thought I’d give Jason’s link a shot anyway. Having read the recap of a lawsuit brought by Magic Hat against West Sixth, a small craft brewery in Kentucky, I became more firmly convinced that Magic Hat has lost more than it’s identity, it’s lost any semblance of the character of shared spirit and cooperation that’s been the hallmark of the craft brewing industry. More importantly, I was left wondering if this is perhaps an example or glimpse of the inevitable types of bigger business corporate behavior that the craft brewing industry’s success was bound to generate. Are we reaching an important tipping point in an ever more crowded landscape or this merely the result of an international bully breaking the unwritten rules?
So here’s the skinny: newly sold and foreign conglomerate owned Magic Hat claims that tiny independent Kentucky newbie, West Sixth copied (stole) their #9 logo. You can read more about the suit and allegations of “enormous financial damage” here. Before I go too much further a bit of a disclaimer is in order. I like craft beer. I “research”, write about, and evangelize the wonders of well-crafted ales to all who may and to some who absolutely don’t care to hear about it. That said, my love of craft beer doesn’t pay the bills. Never has and never will. The bills are paid by something I don’t love – not these days anyway. I’m a recovering litigator. I spent over 20 years in courtrooms as a prosecutor, criminal defense attorney and civil litigator. I’ve handled over 100 jury trials from murder, rape, child abuse, drug distribution and robbery to construction and roofing defects, commercial manufacturing disputes, products liability, and copyright/trademark infringement. I’ve put murderers in prison for the rest of their lives and defended companies against disastrous, multi-million dollar lawsuits. In other words, when it comes the subject matter of one brewery suing another, I know a little something (from every angle).
So what’s really going on here? Is Magic Hat (or whoever they really are) flexing their deep corporate pockets by filing a frivolous suit betting that a small southern start-up brewery will meekly submit or do they have a legitimate, if unpopular point? Well, the recovering litigator in me can’t help but conclude that it’s a little bit of both. There are always many more than two sides to a story. Don’t get too far ahead of me here. Yes, I genuinely believe that there is some merit to part of Magic Hat’s claims but whatever merit exists is soundly overwhelmed by simple common sense and good craft beer citizenship. When it comes to that, Magic Hat is failing miserably.
Are the logos similar? Well, maybe a bit. By definition a 6 is an inverted 9 but, all due respect to the legal mind that thought that argument up, it’s ridiculous. The fonts share some style cues and they each have a special character adjacent to the number but aside from that, they aren’t easily confused except by Cirque de Soleil trainees between two-a-day tryout sessions (and that’s mostly because of their Frenchness). “Irreperable harm” and “enormous financial damage?” I think not. I know not. Not now anyway. That said, these types of suits are generally brought to protect the owner’s mark from future damage. West Sixth certainly isn’t planning to expand into Vermont anytime soon but Magic Hat can’t know that and they’re statutorily required to aggressively protect their mark and corporate image at this stage or risk being precluded from protecting it tomorrow. And there’s the rub.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. West Sixth has made what appear to be legitimate offers to resolve this thing like grown craft beer men – not unlike what Adam Avery and Vinnie Cilurzo did when they realized that both Avery and Russian River had a Salvation in their lineups. The result was Collaboration Not Litigation Ale. That’s the way craft brewers have dealt with one another (for the most part) throughout the last decade of the industry’s monumental growth. Even the truly big boys like Sierra Nevada have gone out of their way to support the local, smaller brewers in North Carolina when they announced their new brewery near Asheville. Sniping amongst and between craft brewers as the landscape becomes that much more saturated may be somewhat inevitable but doesn’t have to be ugly – not Magic Hat ugly in any event (I imagine I’ve just become a target of one of their cease and desist letters because I used social media to call them ugly).
I don’t know – that new logo concept isn’t all that ugly. Not Mona Lisa or a Pontiac Aztec ugly anyway. It kind of captures the spirit of the new regime.
Their nifty new brew kettles fit the image nicely as well. Looks like a batch of Odd Notion or Roxy Rolles ready for the lauter tun.
Oh, one more thing Magic Hat: don’t forget to mention in your cease and desist letter that my refusal to purchase one or two six packs of your mediocre beer this year will inflict enormous financial damage.
Cheers! (and don’t forget to chime in)
I don’t really think either one of these companies comes off well in this whole disagreement they have going. Magic Hat does come off as corporate bullies in this. However, to me, West Sixth’s logo (especially that damn compass/star that seems to be central to the argument) looks to be designed to conjour up thoughts of #9, something of a known commodity to most in the beer aisle. As a marketing guy, I want to say this is to make people feel a bit more comfortable buying something new and unfamiliar.
I really think the worst thing W6 could have done is taken this fight public the way they did. The backlash MH saw from social media couldn’t have made them any more willing to work something out. The two companies had been negotiating for over a year (MH published the letters once W6 made it seem like the first thing they did was sue, those have now been taken down), in which time W6 was never restricted from producing beer, or using their logo, or anything really. Once negotiations didn’t work, the court room is the next option since both companies feel they’re in the right.
I do think MH is going to end up flexing its muscle and winning out, which is unfortunate. It never should have come to this, but it doesn’t seem like either side really tried to actually negotiate a solution. Had MH still been privately owned, maybe this disagreement gets settled out of court with a collaborative 69 beer. Sadly, that’s not the case anymore.
But hey, the entire craft beer world knows who West Sixth is now, so at least they’ve got that much out of the whole thing.
Some valid points there – especially the fact that West Sixth is now somewhat of a known commodity – even if practically none of us can ever get our pint glasses around the tangible commodity they brew. As for a collaborative “69”? I can only imagine the nightmares either W6 or MH would have in getting something like that past the label regulators – brilliant concept though!
So, Magic Hat the makers of one beer with a 9 in the logo for that one beer are suing a brewer that uses a 6 in their logo and denotes that it is to the West for all of their brews as the brewer is actually named West Sixth and is located on West Sixth Street in Lexington, KY. Yeah, we don’t have too many lawyers wandering about with nothing to do. The logos might be similar (a bit of a stretch given the different colors and the fact that a 6 is not a 9 – why not complain that West Sixth has the audacity to put beer in bottles and then cap them while they are at it?) but I find the claim to be ridiculous.
More importantly, the response from both brewers is infantile. Almost like two bullies on the playground complaining about who the real bully is. I have never a big fan of the #9 and if I were Cerveceria Costa Rica, I would spend the legal budget on making a better beer instead of trying to snuff out the little guy, who seems to be making better beer.
Sadly, there’s virtually no chance that CCR will spend a penny or a drachma or a loonie or a bitcoin improving #9 or anything else on the MH lineup. The opposite is more likely true.