Citing what he called a “coordinated harassment campaign,” Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch took to his brewery’s blog earlier this week to address a trademark dispute with Morehead, Kentucky-based Sawstone Brewing.
“Over the last week or so, much ado has been made over our attempt to protect our name, Stone Brewing Co., and our registered trademarks,” Koch wrote. “And this ‘much ado’ involved a lot of vociferous accusations and name calling.”
Stone filed a petition for the cancellation of Sawstone’s trademark application on March 10 on the grounds that there was “likelihood of confusion” among consumers due to Sawstone’s name, which could cause “dilution by blurring.” According to Koch, attorneys for both breweries discussed “settlement possibilities” on May 22, but lawyers for Local Pioneers, the parent company of Sawstone, did not send a proposal.
As weeks passed with no proposal, Stone’s attorneys filed a motion to compel Sawstone to provide initial disclosures on July 8. The next week, on July 17, Sawstone’s attorneys told Stone that they would send the proposal the following week, but then the situation changed, Koch wrote.
“Out of the clear blue, we became the subject of a vicious online harassment and smear campaign — one that was so far removed from the facts of what had actually happened that it even falsely accused us of having sent more than a hundred cease-and-desist letters this year,” he added. “This campaign also included cyber- and cell phone stalking and harassment, complete with personal threats to me and employees.”
Sawstone co-owner Blake Nickell told Brewbound that the company condemns any attacks on Stone and its employees.
“To our knowledge, no employee or business owner of Sawstone Brewing Co. has engaged in any harassment towards Stone and its employees,” Nickell wrote in an email. “We did notice that a Facebook group has emerged in support of us, and I think most of the people in the group are there to support us and we appreciate that when it is done properly.”
A Facebook group named “Boycott Stone Brewing” was formed on July 20 and has more than 2,000 members; one of the group’s administrators lists bartender at Sawstone as one of her jobs, according to her Facebook profile.
Derek Caskey, a Sawstone co-owner, created a fundraiser on GoFundMe on July 20 to raise money for legal fees. At press time, 309 donors contributed a total of $13,561. Nickell said any money leftover would be donated to charity.
Attorneys for both breweries have been in contact since March, when Stone filed the cancellation request. Nickell explained that the closure of Sawstone’s taproom due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused discussions to take longer than expected because Sawstone had “little money to be able to use to defend our trademark.”
“The latest that we have heard from our attorney is that during their discussions, they refuse to entertain any other settlement than one that involves the cancellation of our federal trademark,” Nickell said. “On one of those calls, our attorney had offered our proposal to never separate ‘Saw’ and ‘Stone.’”
Sawstone filed its first trademark application on July 30, 2018; it was fully approved for use in commerce on November 12, 2019. The Sawstone name comes from sawed Kentucky limestone, the material that composes Sawstone’s building.
“We decided to go public with the trademark cancellation because we felt it wasn’t right,” Nickell said. “This has been a very difficult year for everyone, and we have definitely been upset by the events, but we wholeheartedly feel that the harassment only detracts from our message.”
However, no matter how right or wrong the trademark dispute between the country’s ninth-largest craft brewery by volume and a tiny upstart with a three-barrel brewhouse seems to consumers, trademark owners are responsible for protecting their marks. Stone has filed 22 defenses against alleged trademark infringements so far in 2020. Those alleged infringements include Stone the Crows, a beer by Seattle-based Reubens’s Brews, and Sacramento-based Touchstone Brewing, a proposed brewpub on the site of Touchstone Climbing.
Brendan Palfreyman, an intellectual property attorney specializing in craft beer, said these disputes exist on a sliding scale.
“While it is true that the onus is on trademark owners to protect and maintain the exclusivity of their trademarks, and it is also true that Stone owns a trademark registration for the word Stone in connection with beer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that any usage of the term Stone in the name of a beer or brewery is infringing or merits an opposition,” he wrote.
“For example, while the mark Stoned Brewing Co. would likely infringe the Stone registration, it would be very difficult to establish that Rainbow Zebrastone Magic Beer Company infringes the Stone registration,” he continued.
Stone is engaged in a long-running lawsuit against Molson Coors over a change to the company’s Keystone brand packaging that made “Stone” more prominent. That case will go to trial this fall.
“We’ve been brewing beer under the STONE® mark for over two decades — beginning when there were a lot fewer craft brewers out there — and this kind of thing is just part of owning a brand name and a company identity,” Koch wrote in his blog post. “Indeed, we’ve had to frequently stand up to big beer bullies who have tried to steal our name (we hope for Local Pioneers’ sake that they never have to deal with an actual real bully).”