By Chris Lane
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In 1995, Becks Prime fast food outlets in Houston faced the wrath of Germany's Becks beer juggernaut. It wanted the local chain to change its name, saying the brewing giant had already claimed that trade name. Becks Prime and the German brewer reached a settlement that the burger chain would avoid using the word "Becks" without accompanying words such as "Prime."
The legal test in the Starbock fight is "whether an ordinary patron who came to his bar would think of an affiliation to Starbucks coffee, and wonder if Starbucks was now in the beer business," said Paul Van Slyke, a partner at Locke, Liddell & Sapp. "The large multinationals go after [a small operator] because if they let them get away, when they are confronted with a big infringement, the other company can defend itself by saying, 'You let all the small people get away with it.' "
Van Slyke knows firsthand of such litigation, having represented the estate of Elvis Presley in a successful case against the now-defunct Richmond Avenue bar The Velvet Elvis. It was ordered to change its name after a 1998 ruling by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
One Starbucks patron who seemed to back up Van Slyke's notion is Karmen Robertson, a first-year medical student at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
"I would expect [Starbucks] to do something like that. I mean, Starbock is like taking advantage of a name that's well known and trying to capitalize on it," said Robertson. On a Tuesday afternoon, she was sipping on a mocha frappuccino while doing her anatomy homework, as one of a handful of customers at a newly opened Starbucks only four blocks from the Old Quarter.
"Ten years ago when you said the word coffee you thought of Folgers. Now you think Starbucks."
Paul Janicke, a University of Houston law professor who specializes in trademark and copyright issues, said that only a small percentage of these cases get to trial. "There are about 4,500 trademark actions a year, and only one in a hundred proceeds to trial because the plaintiffs are in the right most of the time," said Janicke.
"That's because the economics of these situations are usually lopsided when the corporation's finances are enormous and the accused infringer has small assets. A case like this can ruin a business because it occupies the owner's attention. The real test of these questions is whether [Bell] is ornery enough to see it through."
Starbucks reinforced its stance in an e-mailed response to a Press inquiry, as spokesman Lara Wyss spoke of the company's resolve to sink Starbock.
"Even where it may seem playful, this type of misappropriation of our name [and reputation] is both derivative and dilutive of our trademark rights," she said.
As for the feisty bar owner, he can sound like President George W. Bush making that infamous "Bring 'em on" challenge to Iraqi militants.
"They got me going," Bell says. "The fact that they've threatened to sue me has lit a fire under me to make [selling the beer] happen even faster."