If you live in Southern California or have been on social media over the weekend, you may have been shocked to find out that a new coffee shop has been making waves, and it is called the “Dumb Starbucks.” The “Dumb Starbucks” opened up shop this past Friday and is located in a strip mall in Los Angeles. Despite its interesting name, the new coffee shop has also been turning heads because its logo, color scheme, menu, and even cups look nearly identical to that of Starbucks.
In a document entitled “Frequently Asked Questions,” the Dumb Starbucks shop admits that it “is not affiliated in any way with Starbucks Corporation. We are simply using their name and logo for marketing purposes.” You may be asking yourself, “what marketing purposes are they referring to?” You may be thinking, “surely any company looking to actually go head to head with the great Starbucks Coffee Company would be selling something.”
Well, although the Dumb Starbucks states that it is a real business and has been serving coffee and pastries to the public, it has yet to charge its patrons for any of it. As a result, no one really knows what this new shop is actually trying to do, as it clearly does not appear to be actually competing with the true Starbucks, who nearly dominates the coffee market. Moreover, there does not appear to be any commercial purpose for the Dumb Starbucks shop as it is not actually charging for its goodies.
What is even more interesting is the fact that the Dumb Starbucks states that “Although we are a fully functioning coffee shop, for legal reasons Dumb Starbucks needs to be categorized as a work of parody art. So, in the eyes of the law, our “coffee shop” is actually an art gallery and the “coffee” you’re buying is considered the art.”
Clearly, the folks at the Dumb Starbucks shop have spoken with a few trademark lawyers. A trademark is any word, phrase, design, slogan, or symbol that identifies a specific product brand or a specific brand of service, which in this case would include the word Starbucks, the Starbucks logo, and the green and white color scheme. So, why would the Dumb Starbucks shop use the Starbucks name, logo, and color scheme?
In trademark law, there is an exception which is sometimes referred to as the free speech or parody defense. This defense allows a third party, like the Dumb Starbucks, to use a trademark under First Amendment principles. In E.S.S. Entertainment 2000, Inc. v. Rock Star Videos, Inc., 547 F. 3d 1095 (9th Cir. 2008), the court stated that a parody of a trademark would be allowed under first amendment principles in instances where use of the trademark is artistic. The court gave two factors to be considered: (1) use of the trademark has artistic relevance to the work at issue and (2) use of the trademark does not explicitly mislead consumers as to the source of the mark or the work.
The Dumb Starbucks shop is relying on this parody defense. However, the parody defense is not an automatic defense to trademark infringement, and the judicial outcomes of such cases are usually very fact specific. If Starbucks brings them to court, the Dumb Starbucks shop may have to show that its use of Starbucks’ trademark is not actually misleading customers, which may be difficult to prove when (at first glance) its entire set up, right down to the font, is nearly identical to that of Starbucks. One thing is for sure, it will be interesting to see Starbucks’ response to this new coffee shop in the coming days.