A complex battle involving the city of Portland, OR’s iconic leaping dear insignia is currently unfolding between Old Town Brewing Co. and the city itself. At the heart of the dispute is whether the city has the right to license use of the image to other alcohol companies that want to use it within Portland, or whether Old Town’s trademarks of the image give them the right to shoot down any such use.
The city of Portland initially acquired the trademark to the image after buying the iconic neon Portland sign at the west end of the Burnside Bridge. After that purchase, which was made to save a classic sign from destruction, the city filed to trademark the image. They now license the use of that image to retailers on items such as T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, although their right to do so has also been challenged in the past by Portland-area artists, who contended that the city was attacking “the little guy” by going after small-time artists using the image in online Etsy shops.
One area that the city doesn’t hold a trademark, however, is in the use of the image for alcoholic products. THAT trademark, for a category that includes beer, wine and liquor, belongs to Old Town Brewing. The brewery acquired said trademark in 2012, and it’s one they’ve worked to defend ever since. The city was told as much when they tried to expand their trademark into beer in the fall of 2016. This year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected that request, citing the fact that Old Town’s trademark already covers the territory. But despite that, the city of Portland isn’t dissuaded—they’re pushing forward on the possibility of more or less ripping the trademark away from Old Town.
“Initial trademark application rejections are not uncommon,” said Bryant Enge, director of Porland’s Bureau of Internal Business Services in an interview with Willamette Week. “We’re confident that the trademark will be approved.”
The city’s end goal is apparently to license that trademark to national beer companies at tens of thousands of dollars a pop, and it’s safe to say this is pissing off the folks at Old Town. Yesterday, the brewery published a long, open letter to the city on both Facebook and Twitter, claiming that the city is attempting to “favor big beer” over a locally grown institution. From that letter:
After five years of building our brand, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office now designates Old Town Brewing’s exclusive right to use the leaping deer logo in connection with beer and alcohol as having an “incontestable” status.
Even though the city is well-aware of Old Town Brewing’s trademark rights, city officials have been seeking to strike licensing deals for our trademarked logo with Anheuser-Busch InBev and other multinationals. These are beer and alcohol brands – a narrow category that our small brewery has worked so hard to build and protect.
That’s where our immediate concern comes in. If the leaping deer was to appear on labels of other alcohol brands, it could trick or confuse consumers and that would definitely hurt Old Town Brewing. That’s why trademark protections exist in the first place.
Today we find ourselves shocked and disappointed knowing that certain city officials are spending so much taxpayer money on losing trademark efforts. All of this, to cozy up to big beer.
Predictably, the local craft beer community has sprung to the brewery’s defense, slamming city officials such as Mayor Ted Wheeler. The whole situation can’t help but remind one of the craft beer controversy caused a few weeks ago by Los Angeles mayor Ed Garcetti when he made a World Series bet that promised a “uniquely L.A. experience” of beer from Anheuser-owned Golden Road Brewing Co., rather than any of the city’s 70-plus independent breweries.
Says Old Town owner Adam Milne in the closing to the Willamette Week piece cited above:
“They feel like they should be able to license to whoever they want. We feel that licensing trademarks to multinational corporations is not really a Portland value. We’re very prideful of our local food, our local outdoors and—especially in Portland—our local beer.”