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Dumb Starbucks, Smart Idea?

Dumb Starbucks

“Dumb Starbucks Coffee” was open for several days near Los Angeles, earlier this month, before receiving a “notice of closure” from LA County health inspectors for not having a valid permit. The brainchild of Comedy Central’s Nathan Fielder, “Dumb Starbucks Coffee” looked extremely similar to Starbucks Coffee, except for the inclusion of the word “Dumb” on the logo, menu, and merchandise. The coffee shop garnered worldwide attention and was swarmed by consumers/curious locals who spent hours in line to find out if “Dumb Starbucks Coffee” lived up to the real thing (at least the “Dumb” coffee was free of charge). One tweet suggested that everyone get there “before dumb lawyers get to it.”

Was this performance art or trademark infringement? Fielder, a comedian, believed that by including the word “Dumb” he was making fun of Starbucks, thus creating a parody that allowed him protection under the “fair use” doctrine and therefore, he was not violating trademark laws. According to “Dumb Starbucks Coffee’s” FAQs the establishment was categorized as “a work of parody art,” even though it was a working restaurant. Essentially, Fielder’s argument was that the coffee shop was a “gallery” and the coffee was “art.” A Starbucks spokesperson responded, “[w]e appreciate the humor, but they can’t use our name, which is a protected trademark.”

The “fair use” doctrine limits the copyright owner’s rights. Section 107 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code provides four factors to consider in determining whether or not a particular use is fair. Those factors include (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes, (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. Where courts draw the line on parody varies greatly from case to case, as a number of factors are considered.

What do you think? How far should the right to parody go? Would this case ever go to court? (The “real” Starbucks certainly got a great deal of publicity in response to the parody as well.)

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