Recently, we have been covering updates from a trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition action between Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon, two rival Texas convenience stores with endless rows of gas pumps and checkout lanes (everything’s bigger in Texas, you know; even gas stations). About a month ago, a Texas jury found that the Choke Canyon alligator logo infringes on Buc-ee’s beaver logo:

But as I pointed out when covering the jury’s verdict, it wasn’t clear exactly why these two logos are confusingly similar and to what extent. Could it be the fact that both of the logos contain cartoon animals, who wear hats, who face right, who are smiling, who have red tongues, against a yellow-ish background? Some combination of these features? Additional features? The jury’s verdict doesn’t say; the jury only decided that the Choke Canyon logo infringed, but they weren’t asked to explain why.

However, the jury did send one note to the judge while deliberating, giving some clue as to infringement. In that note, the jury asked, “Does the logo to be considered by the jury in rendering an infringement judgment include a version without words?” To which the Judge responded, “Yes.” Not much insight, but at least we know the jury did not focus on Choke Canyon’s circular ribbon.

The reasons for the finding of infringement often have considerable implications. After such a finding, typically the prevailing trademark owner desires injunctive relief (in addition to damages) against the infringer–in the form of a court order prohibiting the infringer from using the too-similar mark. That form of equitable relief cannot be determined by a jury and has to come from the judge. Still, it seems like it might be useful for the judge, in crafting the injunction, to know why the jury felt the marks were so similar as to create customer confusion. This intuition has recently come to bear as the litigation between Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon has progressed past trial.

Earlier this week, Buc-ee’s moved for a permanent injunction against Choke Canyon (you can read the motion here). Buc-ee’s seeks a permanent injunction barring Choke Canyon’s use of a whole host of similar logos, which were part of a package of example uses submitted to the jury and sampled below:

Buc-ee’s says that Choke Canyon’s proposed injunction is not expansive enough because it does not include or cover any of the black and white logos, only the colorful ones. Buc-ee’s says it “fought tooth and nail”–great imagery, given that it is represented by a beaver mascot–to obtain the finding of infringement of all marks, regardless of whether they include color. But the color similarities (the red tongues and yellow backgrounds) seem pretty important in the context of an infringement battle that otherwise comes down to smiling beaver versus a thumbs-up alligator.

Even though the jury may have technically considered all of the examples provided by Buc-ee’s, an injunction is an equitable remedy, and the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. §1116) provides that courts shall issue injunctions “according to the principles of equity and upon such terms as the court may deem reasonable.” As part of this inquiry, courts consider (1) whether the trademark owner has suffered irreparable injury, (2) whether damages are adequate to compensate for the injury, (3) whether, considering the balance of hardships between the trademark owner and infringer, the requested relief is warranted, and (4) whether the public interest would be disserved by a permanent injunction. Courts frequently grant only limited or qualified injunctions and tailor them to the facts of the case, sometimes by restricting certain formats and locations and requiring disclaimers or corrective advertising.

This is all to say that the scope of an injunction in this case and others depends on the circumstances and the court’s view of what is equitable and reasonable–a flexible standard. In trademark, courts focus on what relief is necessary to remedy and prevent consumer confusion, as well as the potential effects an injunction would have on lawful competition–an important factor that should not be overlooked in this case (perhaps not only as to the parties, but also as to the precedent the court might set generally). What do you think that might be? Leave a thought in the comments below.

About a week ago, we reported on an interesting case out of the Southern District of Texas involving two competing convenience stores with cartoon animal mascots: Buc-ee’s (a beaver) and Choke Canyon (an alligator).

As someone who has personally visited Buc-ee’s stores, I can tell you that they are quite the destination. Buc-ee’s tend to be absolutely massive, with checkout lanes (everything’s bigger in Texas). People even buy T-shirts with Buc-ee’s logos on the front, with various Texan sayings on the back. I personally own three of them. So it’s kind of an understatement to call Buc-ee’s a “convenience store,” by Minnesota standards. And one can hardly complete a description of Buc-ee’s without noting that it is considered to have the “best bathrooms in Texas.”

Credit: Houston Chronicle

Choke Canyon? Yeah, its locations are pretty big too, but the mascot is far less cuddly. Though, it has a nice saying above the exit that probably wouldn’t work at Buc-ee’s: “See ya later, alligator.”

Credit: Yelp

Buc-ee’s sued Choke Canyon for a variety of claims, including: trademark infringement, dilution, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment. We cover these topics frequently on DuetsBlog (check out the topics column).

I must admit that when I first read about the suit, I could hardly believe it. I agree with my colleague that “the best I see from this case is that Choke Canyon may make consumers think of Buc-ee’s stores and beaver, but consumers don’t seem likely to assume that that there is a connection between the two.” And I also think that ” if it weren’t May, I’d assume this was an April Fools Day joke.”

But it’s no joke, and after a four-day jury trial and six hours of deliberation, Buc-ee’s won on all fronts. Specifically, the jury answered six questions (downloadable here):

  1. On Buc-ee’s claims for trademark infringement of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
    • Interestingly, the jury sent one note to the District Judge during deliberations, asking “Does the logo to be considered by the jury in rendering an infringement judgment include a version without words?” To which the Judge responded, “Yes.”
  2. Do you find that Buc-ee’s Logo was famous throughout Texas before Choke Canyon’s use of the Choke Canyon Logo?
    • Jury answer: Yes
  3. Because the jury answered “yes” to question 2, they skipped question 3 (which pertained to specific geographic areas in Texas).
  4. On Buc-ee’s claim for dilution by blurring of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  5. On Buc-ee’s claim for unfair competition, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  6. On Buc-ee’s claim for unjust enrichment, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury Answer: Buc-ee’s

I am surprised by the generality of the questions presented to the jury, and it’s interesting that the jury was not asked about damages–perhaps the issue was bifurcated and will be tried to a different jury.

Question 1, and the jury note, suggests to me that the jury was allowed to focus purely on the similarities between the cartoon animals in the above logos, disregarding Choke Canyon logo’s ribbon stating “Choke Canyon Travel Centers.” But even then, the only obvious similarities are the orientation of the mascots, the yellow background, the wearing of a hat, and their smiles and red tongues. It is hard to believe those basic, nominal characteristics are enough to show consumer confusion and infringement. Maybe Choke Canyon has a good chance on appeal or at judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

And I cannot help but wonder, in view of Question 2, whether the fact that Buc-ee’s mark was famous throughout Texas prior to Choke Canyon’s use of its alligator mark played the most important role in the jury’s verdict. Perhaps the jury felt that Choke Canyon intended to ride on Buc-ee’s mark. Indeed, at closing argument, Buc-ee’s counsel reminded the jurors that a survey showed more than 80% of Texans recognize the Buc-ee’s logo. But I tend to agree with Choke Canyon’s closing argument that the lawsuit seems directed at stifling competition, rather than truly protecting consumers–pointing to Buc-ee’s own prior statement that it only noticed the potential for consumer confusion when Choke Canyon began buying property in towns where Buc-ee’s operates. I find it hard to believe that a reasonable consumer would seriously confuse the two mascots and think they were associated. But apparently two actual-consumer witnesses testified in Buc-ee’s favor on this point. Texas sure is a strange place sometimes.

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: