Starbucks To Sue Small Michigan Coffee Shop For Trademark Infringement

Better not use a green circle for your coffee shop logo because Starbucks has lawyers and they’ll sue ya. Conga Coffee & Tea, a small two-store operation in Michigan, is being threatened with a lawsuit because their logo bears “striking resemblance” to Starbucks’ famous mermaid logo. At least that’s what Starbucks says.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Starbucks claims that the Conga logo is “likely to cause consumers to think that Conga is an authorized licensee of Starbucks.”

Conga’s customers aren’t confused.

“It says ‘Conga’ right there on the sign,” Denise Reedy, 41, said as she sipped a German chocolate latte at the Mt. Clemens shop Thursday. “There’s not much chance I’m going to get confused.”

The owner says he isn’t trying to copy Starbucks, and that the logo has always been the same:

Dregiewicz said Starbucks’ worries that he is trying to emulate the chain are ironic.”Our customers hate their coffee,” said Dregiewicz, 51, who has owned the 11-year-old Mt. Clemens Conga since February. “My sign is round and green and always has been. It’s not even the same shade of green as theirs.”

So far, 250 customers have signed a petition in Dregiewicz’s shop in hope that it will convince Starbucks that Macomb County residents know the difference between the coffeehouses.

If it really took Starbucks 11 years to notice the resemblance, how striking can it be?


Shop’s logo bull’s-eye for Starbucks lawyers
[Detroit Free Press via Starbucks Gossip]

Comments

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  1. SVreader says:

    Wait…is that an elephant or a mermaid in that picture? I’m confused.

  2. DallasDMD says:

    [www.illegal-art.org] (may be considered NSFW)

  3. wendyleigh says:

    that’s silly. i mean really, who would confuse the two?

  4. ParadigmABQ says:

    @svreader: “Conga” and “Starbucks” do share a letter, y’know.

  5. medic78 says:

    It’s an overweight Mermaid.

  6. medic78 says:

    @ParadigmABQ: 2 Letters! SUE EM!!!

  7. gniterobot says:

    That is strikingly similar. And they also happen to be in the same business.

    I can see a problem here.

  8. morganlh85 says:

    It’s not confusing, but they were clearly trying to mimic the Starbucks logo if you ask me. I remember seeing that store while driving by and thinking “They better watch out, copying the Starbucks logo like that!” Guess I was right.

  9. BeFrugalNotCheap says:

    I agree with FourBucks. It says “COFFEE” on the sign therefore it might confuse people. ;)

  10. kantwait says:

    Wow, that’s really bitchy of Starbucks. I highly doubt there’s anyway to confuse the two unless you’ve never ever been in a Starbucks before and are illiterate. And blind.

  11. b612markt says:

    I get it… I don’t think the lawsuit is without merit.

  12. blueboy77 says:

    I live there, and no one is confusing Congas for Starbucks. This is ridiculous. We know the difference.

  13. Boy Howdy says:

    They’re just threatening a lawsuit, right? Not actually suing them at this point.

  14. novelgirl says:

    Now I remember why I thought Starbucks is evil. Let’s say it looks like their logo, I don’t think this company is in any danger of overthrowing Starbucks. That and consumers aren’t morons. It’s a circle, it’s green, d’oh.

  15. Shadowfire says:

    @DallasDMD: How could that case have even gone to trial? It’s clear parody, which is protected. :(

  16. ObtuseGoose says:

    I think it should depend on whether Conga Coffee & Tea had their logo first. If they weren’t first, they need to change it. It’s too similar. Company with green circle logo that sells coffee = Starbucks.

  17. nequam says:

    I disagree with Starbucks but I don’t think they are completely without a point. Based on my super scientific analysis, I’ve determined that the Conga sign resembles a Starbucks sign in my peripheral vision. So, if I’m driving down the street thinking about going to Starbucks and I see the Conga sign out of the corner of my eye, I might slow my car. Upon realizing it’s Conga, not Starbucks, I might decide to stop anyways (perhaps missing the Starbucks on the next block). Just sayin’

    • DangerMouth says:

      @nequam: Gotta agree.

      I used to do a LOT of long distance driving, and when it came time to look for coffee in Nowhere, Somestate, I’d look for the green circles as I pased malls. Not that Starbucks is Mecca, but really, they did bring lattes to middle America. Before the late 80’s/early 90’s, unless you were in a college town, the choice for coffee was diners.

      Nowdays, of course, there’s a good chance that there will be an alternative right down the street from the starbucks, so it’s still a usefull homing device ;)

  18. lincolnparadox says:

    Seriously, if they only own two shops they should try to arbitrate. Tell them that they’re perfectly will to change their sign, especially since emulation wasn’t their intention. But Starbucks should give them a 6 months to a year to make the change.

    That should be enough time to hold a “please keep us from getting sued by the Evil Coffee Empire” benefit for two new signs.

    Still, Starbucks is verging on RIAA cockbaggery with this kind of move.

  19. darkened says:

    I think the real reason of this law suit, they’re required to file suits against stuff like this in order to validate their brand image and if they don’t later on they won’t be able to. It seems amazingly retarded, just like something our government could create!

  20. hi says:

    I think one time I saw Starbuck from Battlestar Galatica drink coffee. Battlestar Galatica came from Star Wars. Hence I beleive George Lucas should sue all three companies (BG, Starbucks, and Congo) for infrigment. Go George!

  21. ParadigmABQ says:

    @medic78: Awww, hell. Should’ve gotten Prepaid Legal afterall.

  22. cde says:

    @lincolnparadox: The sign has been around for 11 years. They don’t need to change it. How long has starbucks used that same logo? How long have they been in Michigan? In Detroit? Those all relate to the suit and how likely it is to pass. Two companies can have similar logos, and the first one to market in a area is the one most likely to win.

  23. MatthewVA says:

    Hate to say it, but I really think they have the law on their side (of course, this coming from a someone who was once a pseudo-IP-paralegal, only 10 months on the job).

    For what it’s worth, check out how nuanced the product/service descriptions get on their records here:

    [tess2.uspto.gov]

  24. Buran says:

    @gniterobot: How is an elephant even close to a mermaid?

  25. Buran says:

    @mbills2: Actually, I think Hermann Melville might have something to say about that.

  26. Jozef says:

    I agree with nequam. Regulars may know that Conga is not Starbucks, but others may get easily confused. This has happened to me, with another small chain, BZB Coffee. They don’t even have green in their logo, but the font they use in their name, together with the store setup, were enough to confuse me. I realized my mistake only after I handed them my Starbucks card, and based on the cashier’s reaction my confusion wasn’t all that uncommon. People ought to realize that others (including me) tend to go to coffee shops when low on caffeine, at which time we get easily confused by store layouts, signs and logos.

  27. Freedomboy says:

    I had an “old fashion” style doughnut last Thursday from ‘Bucks = $1.75 for 1, 2 oz. hunk of flour and sugar. Done deal, no more Starbucks for me.

    Do they burn the coffee beans and over charge?

    Huh? No? Case closed.

  28. valthun says:

    Speaking for starbucks I do get it, in the peripheral one might think that it is starbucks coffee. This has nothing to do with the image in the center, but the general shape and color.

    As for Conga, if that truely has been their logo for 11 years then they do hold precedent in that area. But if they plan on expansing to other markets they may be required to change the logo.

    As for the legal outcome. It will most likely go to arbitration, and since Conga doesn’t have the size of legal or money that starbucks has, Conga may unfortunately have to change their logo rather than fight in court for years. As that fight would most likely cause him to go out of business and starbucks will jump into those stores.

    On a side, there is a dry cleaners near me, that has a green circle and image in the middle for their logo, and I have thought it was a starbucks a few times myself. However once close enough it is apparent that it is not a coffee house at all.

  29. PinkBox says:

    @Jozef: How on earth would you confuse that with Starbucks? Much less actually walk in and order thinking it was starbucks. O_O

  30. UESC says:

    i’m glad i don’t go to starbucks!

  31. gniterobot says:

    @darkened: FTW…I’ve also heard this before. Like kleenex, velcro and qtips…all brands that have lost their meaning.

  32. gniterobot says:

    @Buran: It’s not about the figure. It’s the color scheme, layout and design.

    Obviously the two are strikingly similar. I wouldn’t look at it and think it’s a starbucks, but I certainly might think that it’s related to starbucks, and if I had a bad experience I may then associate it unfairly with starbucks brand.

    Not unreasonable at all.

  33. IrisMR says:

    Oh surely a couple idiots mistaking that little shop’s logo for a starbucks by some incredible blindness will make Starbucks go bankrupt.

    Starbucks, get a life. Continue running your bigass coffee shops and leave the small fries alone.

  34. balthisar says:

    I see this coffee shop all the time, and always wondered why they never received a C&D (you know, before actually getting sued). The issue isn’t that they’re identical, the issue is the overall look and feel. Starbuck’s has a famous mark, and it’s easily defensible. Furthermore, to preserve their mark, they must defend it. If Conga doesn’t submit to a C&D, a lawsuit is the logical next step. It’s not necessarily Starbucks’ being evil, but a legal requirement to protect their mark. If Conga were strictly a tea store, or a different type of store, then they’d likely be okay. Then again, maybe not. Notice how I keep referring to Starbucks’ mark as a “famous mark” rather than just a trademark? These have even stronger, especial protection, in that you’re generally not allowed to use them even for unrelated businesses. If you make a furniture business and use the Coca-Cola logo (or even the name), for example, you’d still have some problems due to famous marks.

    Again, the marks don’t have to be identical, only prone to cause confusion. The law doesn’t state prone to confusion after careful study, though. Despite the fact that I know this coffee shop is there, I always think of Starbucks every, single time I glimpse the sign. I’m a bright guy and not easily confused, but yet it happens. Kind of reinforces the famous mark, too.

    There’s one possible way out, though. Was this mark used in this area prior to Starbucks mark being a famous mark, and prior to any Starbucks’ being in the area?

  35. calvinneal says:

    Starbucks does not have the law on their side. That is determined by a jury. Billable hours are way down in the Michigan attorney community. Given Michigan’s tort reforms, working for Starbucks scaring the hell out of independent businessmen is more lucarative than chasing ambulances By the way, the case has not gone to trail. Conga took their shot in the court of public opinion,They called a reporter on a slow news day. At least three million people read the Sunday Free Press. Conga might lose, but they gave Starbucks a bloody nose.

  36. King of the Wild Frontier says:

    I don’t think that anyone will literally think that they’re Starbucks. More likely, it would work like this:

    You’re driving along. You’re looking for coffee. You see the green circle, and think, “Mmm, coffee!” You take a second look and realize that it isn’t Fourbucks, and you’re a little disappointed, but then you realize that it is a coffee place, and hey, maybe they’re not so bad, and you still want it, so you pull over instead of keeping up your search for the Green Circle That Brings Consciousness.

    None of which really justifies Starbucks’ lawsuit, IMO and IANAL and all that, any more than the first diner to have Art Deco style lettering can sue all the others.

  37. Pop Socket says:

    @balthisar: I’m with the big heartless corporation on this one. Why a green circle? It has no relationship to the name or the service except someone else uses a green circle too.

  38. Jozef says:

    @causticitty: Don’t underestimate the power of caffeine deficiency ;)

  39. Steel_Pelican says:

    I think that Target should sue Starbuck’s, because colorblind shoppers might get confused by the circular logos.

  40. Voyou_Charmant says:

    Just replace the elephant with a manatee.

  41. Voyou_Charmant says:

    @Steel_Pelican:

    It’s true. Red and Green are commonly confused by people who are colorblind.

  42. BigNutty says:

    Starbucks is right. These are very similar with a quick look. You don’t believe this guy had the intention of trying to use a similar logo? People try to get away with it all the time.

    I say Starbucks prevails in this lawsuit. Remember this post when the case is settled so I can say “I told you so”.

  43. sonichghog says:

    It is very close, Both Signs are green and Both say Coffee.

    Starbucks Green Sign came in 1992. This one 1996, If it has been the same for 11 years. So SB was first.

    But to mistake the elephant for a mermaid, you gotta be blind.

  44. kellyhelene says:

    How widespread was Starbucks eleven years ago? I don’t think I saw my first until 98 or 99.

    I wonder if that plays into things…. if his logo predates Starbucks expansion into that region, would it be different than if they opened after Starbucks had reached that area?

  45. hi says:

    Apparently they aren’t just in the coffee business.
    [www.google.com]

  46. Javert says:

    In deciding whether consumers are likely to be confused, the courts will typically look to a number of factors, including: (1) the strength of the mark; (2) the proximity of the goods; (3) the similarity of the marks; (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the similarity of marketing channels used; (6) the degree of caution exercised by the typical purchaser; (7) the defendant’s intent. Polaroid Corp. v. Polarad Elect. Corp., 287 F.2d 492 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 368 U.S. 820 (1961).

    1. Starbucks mark is exremely strong.
    2. Same goods.
    3. Similarity. Same general design, green circle with white writing with an inset image. This is not copyright law, it does not have to be an exact duplicate.
    4. Evidence of actual confusion? I don’t know enough about the situation.
    5. Similar marketing channels? Simply the sign in front of the store? Again, factually dependent and we do not have all the facts.
    6. I would say that when one needs a caffine fix, the degree of caution is diminished. If I was driving by and caught the green circle, I would assume it was a Starbucks and stop. Then, even if it was not Starbucks, my need for caffine would most likely rule and I would buy. So, based on the average caffine junky, it would seem the degree of caution is low.
    7. Intent. We do not have the facts to discerne the intent of the Michigan store.

    I hope this helps clear up any confusion. Feel free to look at these seven factors however you will but please do not make assumptions as to intent, and factually based issues of which you cannot know. Thanks.

  47. Shadowfire says:

    @Jozef: “I realized my mistake only after I handed them my Starbucks card, and based on the cashier’s reaction my confusion wasn’t all that uncommon.”
    Foolish. People pull out the wrong card all the time at the grocery store I work at. Doesn’t mean that stores should start suing each other because they all have loyalty cards.

  48. Javert says:

    @calvinneal: Actually questions of law are generally decided by the judge. Questions of fact are left to the jury. As we have a legitimate question of law and not enough facts one cannot decide who is right and wrong. Nice though to throw out the irrelevant tangent about billable hours. Also, I could not find the Free Press article too which you referred. Last, where do you get that 3 million people read the Free Press. I know my number is out of date but in 1996, Sunday was 750K. In the age of the internet, even with increasing popluation (though I am pretty sure Michigan has lost people in the last 10 years) I doubt that it has increase 4 fold.

  49. taney71 says:

    Makes me want to not shop at Starbucks…oh, wait I don’t shop at Starbucks anymore. Working on week 5!!! I feel like a person who has given up smoking.

  50. waxigloo says:

    @ObtuseGoose:
    You are correct that it matters who was first, but this company has only been around for 11 years, aka 1996, and Starbucks has been cross country well before then (they have been traded publicly since 1992 and small local shops aren’t usually traded on the NASDAQ).

    That said, I don’t think round and green is enough. The shades of green are different. The font is different. The font is a different color. The picture is very different. Contrast that with a sign for a coffee company that looks like this:
    [www.specialtyjava.com]‘s%20Coffee%20Logo.JPG

    Now that company should get sued. Same font. Same color. Same stars placed bisecting the circle horizontally.

    People choose round signs because its a basic shape. People choose green because it is a nice color (and it is often associated with being somehow environmentally friendly which I think is especially relevant to the coffee trade). People don’t randomly choose that in combination with two stars, that font, and the single word coffee across the bottom.

  51. Buran says:

    @gniterobot: If it went 11 years without anyone being confused, or anyone complaining, I think that’s pretty good evidence that this is yet another case of stupid lawsuit syndrome — not being happy enough with what you have, and so trying to extort someone’s money out of them for no work.

  52. bowersst says:

    There was a woman named Samantha Buck is Astoria who had a cafe named “Sam Buck’s.” She was sued by Starbucks and no longer can use her own name as part of her business.

  53. lincolnparadox says:

    @cde: Taking a court to trial is a risky deal. It’s also expensive. Conga could let this thing go through, and counter-sue for court and attorney costs. But the bottom line is, why bother? Two stores, change the signs and post the letters from Starbuck’s legal team underneath a photo of the storefront with the old signage.

    Keep giving Starbuck’s that black eye every day of the week. Start taking Starbuck’s coupons and cutting up their coffee cards for a discount. You won’t change the world, but they will steal customers away.

  54. ry81984 says:

    If the consumer is color blind and cannot read and has thinks a wierd looking woman and elephant are similar then I can see how it can be trademark infringement.

  55. alk509 says:

    @lincolnparadox:

    Start taking Starbuck’s coupons and cutting up their coffee cards for a discount.”

    Ha! I can see it now… a paper shreder and a big sign near the cash register:

    “Put your Starbuck’s loyalty card through the shredder and get a free coffee!”

    That’s ruthlessly brilliant!

  56. girly says:

    The sign isn’t close enough in my opinion.

    Starbucks should sue themselves now for acting like a bully and damaging their own image.

  57. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Damn…so finally, my inability to distinguish elephants from mermaids comes back to haunt me. What a world, what a world. (And those little symbols on the logo that you humans call “words” are all different too).

    Starsucks.

  58. ajadoniz says:

    i dont understand, starbucks is suing itself… Oh, wait. that’s not a starbucks logo!

  59. rockosolido says:

    Hmm, even more reason for me to stop into Conga whenever I’m in downtown Mt. Clemens…

  60. amed01 says:

    Aunt Hilda has some sort of growth that is round & green on her cheek and she’s been around a lot longer than Fourbucks. Maybe she should sue them for copying her birthmark!

    There weren’t even any Fourbucks franchises in the Mt. Clemens area until just last year, and the closest one is over 4 miles away from Conga Coffee.

    I say to hell with Starbucks, side with the independant guy.

  61. floydianslip6 says:

    Wait, I’m confused… why would a huge business conglomerate like Starbucks pick on a small two store operation with bullying litigation?

  62. hexychick says:

    How is an elephant, the words CONGA, COFFEE, and TEA anywhere near a black and white doped up mermaid and the words STARBUCKS? Way to go Starbucks for assuming people can’t read or think for themselves. Clearly they assume everyone is stupid.

  63. vladthepaler says:

    One more reason to not go to Starbucks. At least Walmart doesn’t try to sue the little guys out of existence.

  64. floydianslip6 says:

    @vladthepaler: They just carefully plot their store locations and let people do the rest :-p

  65. asscore says:

    Coffee is worse than crack-cocaine, meth, and cigarettes combined. People who drink it everyday don’t even realize how mood altering it is.

    Plus it’s a tool of corporate slavery.

    Enjoy your latte!

  66. hinten says:

    @darkened:

    This.