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Stone Brewing v. MillerCoors: A Key(STONE) Trademark Battle

Posted in Branding, Infringement, Marketing, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Trademarks, USPTO

Stone Brewing Co., an independent craft brewery based in California, has filed a trademark infringement complaint against MillerCoors LLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co. (collectively “MillerCoors”). The complaint is based on the recent rebranding of the MillerCoors “Keystone” beer. The rebranded packaging separates “Keystone” into two words, with the smaller word “KEY” on a separate line, above the larger word “STONE.” See the photograph below of the rebranded can (Stone Brewing’s co-founder Greg Koch is in the background, looking displeased).

See also the external packaging of the 30-packs, which further emphasize the word “STONE” on the cans:

Stone Brewing owns an incontestable federal trademark registration for STONE (typeset) for “beers and ales” (Reg. No. 2168093).  When MillerCoors rebranded last year, it appears it may have known about Stone Brewing’s registered rights in the STONE mark. MillerCoors had already filed an application to register “STONES” for beer back in 2007, but was refused registration by the Trademark Office, based on likelihood of confusion with Stone Brewing’s STONE registration. After that refusal, MillerCoors abandoned its STONES application.

Nevertheless, when MillerCoors announced its rebranded packaging for Keystone last year, it emphasized that the rebranded can “plays up the ‘Stone’ nickname” for the beer, and further noted that with this rebranding effort, “Keystone Light is grabbing 2017 by the ‘Stones.”

Stone Brewing’s complaint is aggressive and persuasive, but it also includes some playful and humorous language, along with frequent criticism of MillerCoors, including digs at the quality of its beer (or lack thereof), and its decline in recent years as one of the “Beers Americans No Longer Drink.”  Below are a few of my favorite lines (note that “Gargoyle” is a nickname/emblematic self-reference to Stone Brewing)

  • “Since 1996, the incontestable STONE® mark has represented a promise to beer lovers that each STONE® beer, brewed under the Gargoyle’s watchful eye, is devoted to craft and quality. Like all Gargoyles, it is slow to anger and seeks a respectful, live-and-let-live relationship with peers and colleagues – even those purveying beers akin to watered-down mineral spirits. But Stone and the Gargoyle cannot abide MillerCoors’s efforts to mislead beer drinkers and sully (or steal) what STONE® stands for.”
  • “The Gargoyle does not countenance such misdirection of consumers; nor does it support those who would disavow their own Colorado mountain heritage to misappropriate another’s ancestry. Stone accordingly brings this action to help usher Keystone back to the Rockies. Should Keystone not willingly return, Stone intends to seek expedited discovery in aid of a preliminary injunction”

Stone Brewing’s co-founder Greg Koch recently posted a video regarding the dispute, and MillerCoors issued the following public response:

  • “This lawsuit is a clever publicity stunt with a multi-camera, tightly-scripted video featuring Stone’s founder Greg Koch. Since Keystone’s debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used ‘Stone’ to refer to the Keystone brand, and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process”

What do you think about this dispute? In my view, it’s more than a publicity stunt. The MillerCoors response about how some consumers may refer to “Stone” for Keystone beer is less relevant than the marks actually used in commerce by MillerCoors. Based on the rebranded packaging’s emphasis of “STONE,” and Stone Brewing’s incontestable registration for STONE for beer, this appears to be a relatively strong complaint. MillerCoors may be rolling a stone uphill on this one. But we’ll have to wait to see its answer and any defenses. Stay tuned for updates.