“Dumb Starbucks” and Trademark Parody

There’s been lots of buzz about the “Dumb Starbucks” that opened in Los Feliz, California this week, and customers have been lining up for hours to get in. The menu is similar to ordinary Starbucks stores, though favorites like lattes and frappuccinos have been renamed to include the word “dumb” (and, unlike at your neighborhood Starbucks, the drinks are free, though tips were suggested). In order to attempt to avoid liability for their use of the famous coffee chain’s trademarks, the “dumb” store’s owners claim that their store is actually a work of parody art, rather than a coffee shop.

However, there is generally no statutorily recognized right to parody a business’s trademark. For example, one famous trademark case (Anheuser-Busch v. Balducci) held that a cartoonist could not parody the Michelob beer trademark as “Michelob Oily,” even as part of commentary on the Gasconade oil spill: “…the majority of those surveyed construed the ad parody as suggesting that Michelob beer contains oil. This relationship obviously tarnishes the marks’ carefully-developed images. Moreover, the tarnishment results from a negative, although vague, statement about the quality of the product represented by the trademark.” This differs from copyright law, which explicitly provides a parody fair use exception. Starbucks, known to vigorously protect its intellectual property rights, has said it is looking into the matter; some reports state the store stopped serving coffee around 7 p.m. Sunday.