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Unicorns and Beer: A Match Made in Portland

Posted in Branding, Fair Use, First Amendment, Goodwill, Infringement, Trademark Bullying, Trademarks

Hipsters and Portland go together like…. hipsters and Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). So naturally, when PBR decided to host a music festival, they chose Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately for PBR, some of their choices along the way have caused the city of Portland to schedule a vote to decide whether to sue them.

It turns out, the connection between PBR and Portland goes way back. Since the 1970s, PBR experienced a steady decline in popularity. But in the early 2000s, the beer’s sales began growing rapidly in certain urban areas, with the New York Times identifying Portland as the instigator. Supposedly, the popularity was due to certain consumers’ desire for a cheap, working class beer that didn’t try to buy their loyalty with gimmicks like “advertisements” and “commercials,” along with a heavy dose of 1970s nostalgia.

Portland shared a similar nostalgia for the past, too. Locals and visitors are likely to recognize the sign below as an iconic landmark for Portland:

Well, the sign is iconic, at least. It had been in the city for decades, but it used to read “Made in Oregon,” and before that, “White Stag Sportswear” (and before that, “White Satin Sugar”). In 2009, the sign was nearly shut off and dismantled, when it was purchased by the City of Portland. It didn’t take long for the city to begin monetizing the sign, granting licenses to use the sign – usually for a fee.

PBR decided that it too liked the sign and began the process of applying to license its use of the sign as part of its logo, shown below:

Unfortunately, the process failed and PBR abandoned its license application. Reportedly, the application was refused because Project Pabst’s product (beer) has age restrictions, in violation of the licensing guideline requiring goods licensing use of the sign to be available to all ages. PBR decided to use the logo anyway. The city sent PBR a letter telling them not to, but PBR apparently didn’t care. Maybe PBR thought that the city wouldn’t notice, that they’d only use it sparingly and fly under the radar. Maybe just on a sign in the local liquor store.

Maybe a barely noticeable sign on the front door to the festival.

Oh. Okay, but it’s not like PBR was printing the logo on actual cans.

Well, I guess at least once it got dark out nobody could see the logo anymore.

At least PBR wasn’t being sneaky.

Interestingly, it’s not just the city that PBR might need to worry about. Back when the city was deciding how to reword and redesign the sign, one clever resident proposed this design:However, the creator of the unicorn sign suggests that PBR’s choice might simply be a coincidence in light of the rumor (fact?) that Portland was built on an ancient unicorn burial ground.

Setting aside the government cover-up of the unicorn burial ground, the city claims to have trademark rights in the sign, but it is unclear what type of goods or services in connection with which the city uses the supposed trademark. A recent demand letter sent to Uber declines to identify the goods or services.

However, the letter includes a copy of the city’s Oregon state trademark registration. Under “goods or services,” the registration lists:

The sign is a visual icon associated with Portland, and is seen all over the world when major events come to Portland.

I’m sure that isn’t a good. And it doesn’t sound like a service. I’ve heard Oregon is a pretty laid-back place, but I didn’t know that included the Secretary of State, too. If the city is ever forced to proceed to trial, it will be forced to articulate an actual good or service, at least for a trademark infringement claim. There is still some potential for claims of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices.

Unfortunately though, it doesn’t look like we’ll find out what goods or services Portland is selling any time soon. It appears that PBR and the city are on speaking terms again and my be reaching a settlement. Which is really too bad because now we may never learn the truth as to whether Portland really is built on a unicorn burial ground.