I tweeted the following yesterday:
Dear Brewers: Remember to register your trademarks internationally. It doesn’t cost much and prevents you looking stupid later.
With the amount of coverage that’s been going on about Blue Moon coming to Canada under the sobriquet Belgian Moon, you’re probably wondering why that happened. It should be obvious that the strength of selling a brand internationally has to do with the merit of the brand itself. The difference here ought to be apparent: Blue Moon is one of the bestselling beers to come out of the United States in the last 30 years. Belgian Moon is nothing but whole cloth invention.
For a brewer, any brewer, branding is part of the total package and in a world where there are now something like 4200 breweries in North America that means that you’re eventually going to run out of trademarks to register. I know that some of you have bought the alpha acid okey doke; that the “brotherhood” of craft brewing with its hop scented hackey sack and backslapping good times doesn’t get litigious. I don’t quite know how to impress upon you that we’re not all in this together.
You may not have wealth creation in mind as your goal. Maybe you just want to have a little nanobrewery and be on tap at your local pub. What you need to understand is that not everyone feels that way about brewing. Not everyone is a dilettante. The next time you see a lawsuit over a brand name in craft beer, you’ve got to remember that it is not a moral problem. You should cheer for whoever had the foresight to trademark their product name.
The Belgian Moon fiasco is a great cautionary example.
Blue Moon was developed in Colorado in 1995. Now, regardless of whatever Keith Villa says in interviews, Blue Moon was a Coors property. It was originally brewed at Coors Field in the Sandlot Brewery. It has always been owned by Coors and has never been independent.
I’m not saying that to disparage the beer, incidentally. The beer is fine. I’m saying that because I want to impress upon you that a very large brewing company did not do due diligence. As a wholly owned subsidiary, the Blue Moon trademark should have been registered throughout North America at that point. Who knows why they didn’t? In 1995 the market wasn’t so crowded and maybe they never dreamed that they’d sell that much beer. After all, it was only a ballpark brewery. Maybe they were distracted by a Larry Walker dinger.
The problem is that you can’t see the future and you don’t know what’ll happen.
According to records over at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO, hereafter), no one registered Blue Moon until 2006. Unfortunately for Blue Moon, it wasn’t Molson Coors. Molson and Coors only entered into partnership in 2005 and apparently it didn’t occur to them at that time to register their trademarks in both countries. This is incredibly poor oversight because it allowed the following to happen.
A company called Ontario 2008474 registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada. That company is also known as Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing. It’s not just that they registered Blue Moon. They registered Firestone and Fat Tire. Subsequently, Ontario 2008474 would stymie Goose Island’s initial marketing foray into Canada by registering and using several three digit area codes to prevent a rebrand of 312 Urban Wheat for Canadian Markets. 416 Urban Wheat didn’t exist for no reason. Neither does Sweetwater Squeeze Radler.
It’s a very clever tactic. If you own the Canadian trademark for a large competitor in another country you’ve bought yourself time and reduced your local competition. You might claim it’s unsporting, but so is buying up shelf space.
Molson Coors expanded production of Blue Moon in 2007, but couldn’t sell it as Blue Moon in Canada. The current marketing spin claims that Blue Moon and Rickard’s White are different products, but that wasn’t the case in 2007 according to the Montreal Gazette. Maybe it is now, but the only difference I can see, even on the Blue Moon and Rickard’s websites are the variety of hops.
But that doesn’t explain why it’s Belgian Moon in Canada, does it?
In October 2007, SAB Miller and Molson Coors entered into a partnership in the United States under the name MillerCoors. In 2011 MillerCoors finally got around to registering the American trademark in Canada. By 2013, they had managed to secure the registration of the trademark in Canada from Ontario 2008474. You would assume that would mean they’d be able to call it Blue Moon, right?
Not so fast. The Blue Moon trademark is registered to MillerCoors. Not Coors, who should have registered it in 1995 or MolsonCoors who should have registered it in 2005. MillerCoors. The problem is that MillerCoors registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada in October. The previous January, Miller sued Molson to be allowed to distribute their own brands in Canada.
This has had some upsides and downsides: Pilsner Urquell is getting additional play in Canada, but so is Miller Lite. Most importantly though, it means that Miller owns a portion of the Blue Moon trademark in Canada and due to their infighting with Molson, we get Belgian Moon.
Because Coors didn’t register their trademark in Canada in 1995 and because large brewery partnerships come and go we’re now in the situation where MolsonCoors has basically the same beer in the market twice as Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White and the original brand (the one that has all the cachet) is nowhere to be found.
It’s an incredibly dumb situation. It is the kind of situation that leaves you wondering how they get their socks on in the morning without cutting their own heads off.
I know that your temptation here is to laugh at MolsonCoors and Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White. That’s not what you should be taking away from this. The lesson here is that not registering your trademark is 1995 thinking. You might have been able to get away with it at that point, but there are 4200 breweries in North America and many of them are trying to increase in size. Few of them are all that creative when it comes to naming conventions. Register your trademarks early and often and you won’t run into this situation where you have to dilute a successful brand in order to have something to sell.
(Ed. Note: Thanks to alert readers for pointing out it was 416 Urban Wheat and has now been rebranded Local Lager.)