Update: Thursday, March 12, 5:30 p.m.: The owners of Innovation Brewing responded to Bell’s letter, citing that, although they did not want to air the dispute in public, certain claims made on the Michigan brewery’s Facebook page prompted them to stand up.
“We felt it was important to get our story out to the media, because this is an important matter for the craft beer industry,” Innovation wrote on Facebook. “We did not intend (nor do we want to) have a social media battle with Bell’s.
“Thank you for continuing to support and believe in us,” the post continues. “You keep us going through this difficult time.”
The pair then addressed Bell’s list, point-by-point:
- Yes, this is a [trademark] proceeding and not a lawsuit. [But] it is like a lawsuit, requiring legal representation, being personally deposed and including a trial. They are asking us to withdraw our federal trademark application for our brand name.
- We do not believe that any human on earth would confuse Innovation Brewing with Bell’s Brewery, despite their slogans.
- Laura Bell did contact me at 7 p.m. the night before their opposition filing was due. They had already hired attorneys to represent them and file for their extension to file the opposition. We had not hired an attorney. After she advised us that she would “let us” keep using the name in N.C. only and never expand beyond [the state], she said that we had until the next day at 5 p.m. to respond. That is 22 hours to find an attorney and decide on the future of our business. That was the one and only attempt Ms. Bell made to contact me. From there, their attorneys took over.
- Not a single co-existence agreement has ever been presented to us by Bell’s. In fact, it was we who submitted a written co-existence agreement – subsequently declined by Bell’s. The only monetary compensation they have ever offered us was $2,500 which was to cover the inconvenience of being forced to abandon our trademark and go register a different one. The “legal fees,” as Ms. Bell puts it, brought on by their legal action against us, may exceed $50,000. We did not feel like being bought off.
- This matter was before the [trademark] office one day after she began talking to us. No offer has ever been presented to us other than the offer to limit our business to N.C. or take $2,500 to start over and build a new brand. We believe in our business, so those are not really offers at all.
- In regards to Laura Bell stating, “We hope to resolve this as swiftly as the system will allow,” we suggested the accelerated trademark opposition process that would have brought this to a legal end much sooner and with far less expense, but Bell’s denied it.
“You great people don’t deserve to be peppered with sides of the story,” the two wrote on Thursday evening. “So we will give you a full account of the facts so you can decide for yourself. We are good people and we know we have your support. Stay tuned.”
Update: Thursday, March 12, 11:30 a.m.: This morning, Bell’s Brewery Vice President Laura Bell posted a letter addressing the dispute with Sylva’s Innovation Brewing. Read the letter in its entirety here:
To our Bell’s customers and the passionate craft beer community,
We want to clear up a few things regarding our federal trademark dispute with Innovation Brewing.
- We have not, and are not asking them to change their name or their logo. There is no lawsuit. We are not suing them. We have not asked them for money. We have not asked them to stop selling their beer. We are asking them to withdraw their federal trademark application.
- Our concern is with their United States trademark application and potential impact on our brand, which we have spent 30 years building.
- I personally reached out to Innovation Brewing to try to settle this matter in February 2014 and attempted to talk about this brewer to brewer instead of involving lawyers. Our efforts were rebuffed and Innovation Brewing choose to pursue this in the legal system.
- Over the last year, we have offered co-existence agreements and have offered to pay for their legal fees. We tried to find solutions that would work for both of us. Their response was to ask for an exorbitant amount of money and we did not feel that was a collaborative solution.
- All offers that we proposed were rejected and after more than a year of discussion regrettably, this matter has moved to the federal trademark office.
We have the utmost respect for Innovation Brewing and we are going to keep any comments we have regarding this matter positive, honest, and collaborative. We want them to continue to brew and do the good work they’re doing under their own name.
We hope to resolve this as swiftly as the system will allow.
The passion that we have seen over the past few days is a testament to how much the beer industry means to those who support it and why we are proud to be a part of it. We always appreciate further feedback and invite everyone to continue to share their concerns with us directly.
Original story from Wednesday, March 11:
In the world of craft beer, legal disputes over punny names are common.
An NPR story from January, Craft Brewers Are Running Out Of Names, And Into Legal Spats, details the many legal dead-ends that hop-lessly trap micro-brewers in a corner. “Virtually every large city, notable landscape feature, creature and weather pattern of North America — as well as myriad other words, concepts and images — has been snapped up and trademarked as the name of either a brewery or a beer,” writes author Alastair Bland.
And with Asheville’s booming craft beer scene — 18 within our city limits and even more on the outskirts, it was only a matter of time before one of our own got into a legal tussle.
In a recent news story by Asheville Citizen-Times‘ “beer guy” Tony Kiss, Innovation Brewing in Sylva reveals its fight over conflicting language with a much bigger company — Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The dispute, Kiss reports, is over the brewery’s name — “Innovation,” which happens to be the exact word Bell’s uses in its unofficial slogan, appearing on the company’s bumper stickers. Though Bell’s does not use this logo on any of its bottles or packaging, the brewery claims the slogan, “bottling innovation since 1985,” may cause confusion for customers between Bell’s and the Sylva microbrewery.
News of the 310,000-barrel-per-year operation filing federal action with Innovation’s family-owned 500-barrel system has upset many craft beer supporters in WNC — and around the country.
It has caused such a stir, in fact, that a petition popped up on change.org just before midnight on Tuesday, March 10. The petition already has more than 3,500 signatures.
Support from Western North Carolina residents and establishments poured in on social media. “As of today, the Bywater will no longer serve Bells Brewing. We stand with
@InnovationBeer. #avlbeer #avlnews #avl,” writes the Bywater on Twitter, posting a photo of the bar’s Bell’s Brewery tin placard in the trash.
The Altamont Brewery posted the petition on Facebook, with the caption “2 Cold Hearted,” a play on Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.
Joining the Bywater and Altamont, the Nine Mile on Montford and Buffalo Nickel have both weighed in, saying the two restaurants will no longer be serving beer from Bell’s.
The petition begins by explaining the case against the Sylva brewer, then adding, “While every business has an inherent right to protect their brands and marketing, this lawsuit is a clear case of a large company with money bullying a small start-up [just] trying to keep the doors open. The lawsuit is without merit and provides yet another example of the increasingly litigious nature of the craft beer industry.”
While the petition clearly calls the dispute a “lawsuit,” Bell’s Brewery cleared the air in a letter this morning, writing that the Michigan company is not suing Innovation, but attempting to prevent them from trademarking the name.
And the love for small craft brewers is not coming in just from WNC. As the story spreads to other outlets around the states, so do the signatures — and they’ve been rapidly rising with every page refresh. Xpress‘ most recent count, around 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, puts it at 3,531.
“I believe that craft beer is more than just a collection of businesses,” signs Kody Thames, from Tempe, Ariz. “It is a community that supports, creates and builds new ideas together. Attacking a small brewery across the country that will never affect your business or cause confusion with some stupid bumper sticker amounts to bullying. The craft beer community will not stand for this.”
Another signer, Brian Foreman from Raleigh, writes, “Craft beer is about community and inspiration. Crushing small local breweries on unfounded claims oppresses the very community that thrives on small-time operations.”
Even the NPR story on the craft beer disputes mentions that “Name overlaps may not matter as long as the beers are sold in different regions,” which, in this case, seems should be a nonissue for Bell’s, producing 620 times more barrels per year than Innovation, which only distributes its beer locally.
Bell’s commented on Twitter about the dispute, writing, “We hear and appreciate everyone’s comments. We are doing our best to continue working through this as amicably as possible and are hopeful we can find a mutual resolution. Out of respect for the legal part of this process that we are now in, we will decline commenting further.”
In the Citizen-Times story, the founder of Bell’s comments that the dispute will “play out in federal court,” and not on social media and in the news.
More than 1,000 new people have “liked” Innovation’s Facebook page since the news hit — and owners posted their thanks for support on the page, “We are overwhelmed with gratitude for all the support we have been receiving during all this,” Innovation posted. “We are hopeful that the issue can be resolved and we can all go back to focusing on making great beer. Thank you to the craft beer community.”
Even a GoFundMe page popped up to help cover the brewery’s legal fees, having raised $642 in just one hour. By 11 a.m. Thursday morning, the crowdfunding effort had raised $3,045 of the $40,000 goal.
Click here to visit the petition on change.org, and read below for reactions from locals (and even non-locals):