Usually when we’re reporting on legal stories related to beer, and especially copyright law, it’s because one brewery has come into conflict with another. With more than 6,000 breweries now operating in the U.S., it’s never been harder to dream up a clever new beer name without finding out that the name is already taken, after all. But this story isn’t a case of two small breweries debating who had the first use of the industry’s 10,000th hop pun. This is an international mega corporation taking aim at a small craft brewery … with what is admittedly a pretty clear-cut case.
Auburn, CA’s Knee Deep Brewing Co. is an exemplary producer of India pale ales in the classic west coast style. In an era that has become dominated by hazy, northeast IPA-style beers, they’re one of the breweries I often point to as doing some outstanding versions of the past IPA style, wherein at least a little bitterness was not only expected but welcomed. Their beer has performed outstandingly in Paste blind tastings as well—they placed beers into the finals of both our tasting of 247 IPAs and our most recent tasting of 176 DIPAs. That’s a level of consistency that not many other breweries can match.
Now, however, they’re being sued by Sony over Breaking Bud IPA, the brewery’s well-liked flagship, for its obvious similarities to the TV series Breaking Bad. In its complaint, Sony alleges the brewery purposely imitated the Breaking Bad logo to capitalize on the TV show, and is suing for trademark infringement, dilution, false designation of origin and unfair competition. It seeks an injunction that would stop Knee Deep from using the phrase “Breaking Bud” and obviously remove the logo from future bottlings, among other damages.
“Simply put, rather than investing the time, effort and resources necessary to establish their own reputation and identity, Defendants have instead opted to hijack the famous brand identity associated with SPT and its BREAKING BAD show for Defendants’ own intended benefit,” reads the complaint. “Defendants’ unauthorized use of SPT’s trademarks and design elements threatens to erode the value of SPT’s BREAKING BAD Marks by undermining SPT’s continuing ability to attract licensees for such marks and secure compensation for the right to associate one’s products with the BREAKING BAD show.”
As for the strength of Sony’s case … I mean, yeah—the beer is obviously based on the Breaking Bad logo, which has been clear to anyone who looked at a bottle of it since Knee Deep began producing the IPA in 2015. Their defense will presumably contend that the label was made in parody and not intended to create any kind of confusion, or make consumers think they were buying some kind of official Breaking Bad beer. But in general, making the label so similar in the first place seems like a really unnecessary risk for the brewery to have ever taken. They had to assume that this result could be an eventual possibility, especially as they expanded the Breaking Bud brand into more states.
It’s a shame, because as many news outlets report on the lawsuit, what will no doubt be lost in the shuffle is that Knee Deep is a really solid brewery, and Breaking Bud is an outstanding IPA. Here’s hoping that they find a way out of this situation, and that we’ll continue to see Knee Deep offerings performing well in Paste blind tastings for years to come.