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Brawling Brands: Beaver Versus Alligator

Posted in Dilution, Infringement, Law Suits, Trademark Bullying, TTAB

Who do you think would win in a fight to the death: a beaver or an alligator? Sure, alligators seem scarier. They’re known for sharp teeth and strong jaws. They even have a 1980 horror movie about them called Alligator (Sidenote: the plot summary makes this sound like a must-see). Beavers? Not so much. Small and furry. They cut down trees. Sure, there was a television series called Angry Beavers, but it was a kids cartoon on Nickelodeon. Those beavers didn’t live in the Chicago sewers feasting on discarded animal carcasses from secret government laboratories testing mutating growth hormones (Again, this Alligator movie sounds like a must-see).

But what if this isn’t just a regular beaver? What if this is a beaver with an entire travel center full of deli stations, gasoline pumps, bathrooms, and over three decades of use? Oh! And did I mention the red baseball cap? It may not sound that scary to you, or alligators in general, but for the Choke Canyon Alligator, the fear might be starting to build. While an alligator likely gets the best of a beaver in the animal kingdom, the courtroom is an entirely different venue.

The animals underlying this dispute are beavers and alligators, but the parties are Buc-ee’s, Ltd., Shepherd Retail, Inc., and Harlow Food, Inc. The plaintiff is Buc-ee’s, the operating of a chain of Buc-ee’s travel stations throughout Texas. The defendants Shepherd Retail and Harlow Food operate a travel center under the name Choke Canyon, also in Texas. The dispute centers around Buc-ee’s claim that Choke Canyon’s design logo is similar to Buc-ee’s logo. A jury was impaneled earlier this week to help decide whether these logos are confusingly similar, but in the meantime, you can put on your juror hat and compare the parties’ logos yourself.

Thoughts? And to finish any potential arguments before they get started, this is an alligator, not a crocodile. Crocodiles can’t stick out their tongues (We’re not just a trademark blog, we’re a science blog, too.)

Here’s how Buc-ee’s summarized the similarity of the marks in the Complaint:

Defendants’ anthropomorphic and cartoon representation of the alligator as shown above in connection with a convenience store copies the most important aspects of the iconic BUC- EE’S Marks. Specifically, besides Defendants’ improper use of a friendly smiling cartoon animal, Defendants have copied the BUC-EE’S Marks with: (i) the use of a black circle encompassing the alligator (compare to the black circle around the beaver), (2) use of a yellow background (compare to the yellow surrounding the beaver), (3) use of the red-colored tongue of the alligator (compare to the red hat on the beaver), (4) prominent use of sharply drawn black edges for the alligator mascots (compare to the sharp crisp black edges defining the beaver, and (5) the use of letters in raised block font in the name “CHOKE CANYON”

This also isn’t the first trademark battle for Buc-ee’s. The beaver has already defeated two chickens (settled out of court):

And a rival (but hatless) beaver (settled out of court):

As a general matter, I think trademark plaintiffs are too easily branded with the label of a “trademark bully,” but this one seems like a stretch.

Granted, I’ve never been in any of either party’s stores. Perhaps the manner in which the marks are advertised adds to the confusion. In fact, Buc-ee’s also claimed that Choke Canyon’s trade dress infringed upon Buc-ee’s trade dress. The layout of a store or restaurant can be protectable trade dress under the Lanham Act. Even if the individual elements may not be protectable (for example, cactus in a Mexican restaurant), the overall selection and arrangement of even unprotectable elements may give rise to protectable trade dress.

Buc-ee’s claimed trade dress for its travel store-restaurant-convenience store-gas station consists of:

(a) consistent use of bell-gabled roof lines;
(b) Use of a red, white, yellow and black color scheme in store signage;
(c) Use of stone siding on the exterior of the store;
(d) Consistent use of a specific and distinctive fountain drink set up in the interior of the stores;
(e) In-store computer ordering kiosks;
(f) Horse-shoe shaped in-store carving stations;
(g) Open counter deli stations;
(h) Freshly prepared signature food choices;
(i) Consistent, prominent use of the BUC-EE’S Marks in signage above and on the products offered for sale;
(j) Large square footage;
(k) Numerous fuel pumps;
(l) Abundant and oversized parking spaces;
(m) Oversized bathrooms;
(n) A multitude of cashier stations;
(o) Entrances from three of the four sides of the building.
(p) Antique-looking displays;
(q) Country-themed signage; and
(r) Khaki paint colors.

I’m no expert in convenience stores, but most of the elements seem like generic elements of a travel center, restaurant, or convenience store. The antique and country themed signage is not as much of a required element for these types of store, but it hardly seems unique for a convenience store or gas station to have a country theme. Like the claim of trademark infringement based on the use of a cartoon character with a hat, I also have doubts as to the success of the trade dress infringement.

But is the combination of the two enough to nudge these claims over the edge into potential infringement? Based on publicly available information, the best I see from this case is that Choke Canyon may make consumers think of Buc-ee’s stores and beaver, but consumers dont’ seem likely to assume that that there is a connection between the two. While it can be a fine line, trademark law is pretty consistent that merely “calling to mind” is insufficient to establish trademark infringement. There must instead be a possibility of consumer confusion as to source, sponsorship, or some other connection.

It is possible additional facts will come out during trial to bolster Buc-ee’s claims. Perhaps there really was a pattern of intentional copying, from the yellow background of the circle logo, to the store layout, down to individual products being offered, like the purportedly famous “Beaver Nuggets” (aka, caramel corn). Stay posted for future updates as the trial proceeds and ends. We’ll also keep a lookout for comments from our neighbor to the east, the other cartoon Bucky: