Update: Stone Brewing v. MillerCoors – Answer and Counterclaims

by Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.
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A couple months ago, I posted about the contentious trademark battle involving Stone Brewing Co., a craft brewery based in California, who filed a trademark infringement complaint against giant beer conglomerate MillerCoors LLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co. (“MillerCoors”). The complaint is based on the recent rebranding of the MillerCoors “Keystone” beer, which separates and places greater emphasis on the word “STONE.”  Stone Brewing alleged that this rebranded packaging infringed its registered trademark “STONE” mark for beer.

A couple days ago, MillerCoors submitted an 84-page filing for its answer and counterclaims. Typically, an answer is relatively short, consisting of concise admissions or denials. But the answer here consists of 50 pages, with numerous paragraphs providing narrative, argumentative retorts aimed at Stone Brewing. Additionally, MillerCoors alleged four counterclaims, seeking declaratory judgment: (1) of MillerCoors’ right to use STONE to advertise Keystone beer; (2) of the unenforceability of the STONE mark against MillerCoors due to laches; (3) of MillerCoors’ non-infringement; and (4) of MillerCoors’ exclusive right to use the STONE mark.

MillerCoors emphasizes that its rebranded packaging does not use or infringe Stone Brewing’s “STONE” mark; rather, the full “KEYSTONE” mark is always used, and Stone Brewing’s complaint relied on “misleading images” that “misrepresent the look of Keystone cans and outer packaging,” to unduly isolate the “STONE” portion of the mark.

Furthermore, MillerCoors alleges that it made prior use of “STONE” as a nickname for its Keystone beer in its advertising since at least 1995, whereas Stone Brewing did not begin selling its STONE-branded beer until 1996.

MillerCoors also contends that Stone Brewing should not be allowed to enforce its STONE mark against MillerCoors after unreasonably waiting eight years to file this lawsuit, following a demand letter sent by Stone Brewing back in 2010, after which Stone Brewing took no further action.

Beyond the relevant legal points, MillerCoors also offers several rhetorical attacks, in an attempt to counteract the big-beer vs. small-brewing narrative of the complaint. MillerCoors contends that Stone Brewing’s “grandiose” allegations are “misleading and ultimately meritless,” and that the lawsuit is merely a “publicity stunt and a platform to market its beer.” MillerCoors suggests that the lawsuit was really about “Stone Brewing’s struggle with its new identity as a global mega-craft beer manufacturer. Gone is the small Stone Brewing of old. Today, Stone Brewing is one of the largest breweries in the United States and its beer is sold on five continents…. What does a company that was built around its opposition to ‘Big Beer’ do when it becomes ‘Big Beer?’ Stone Brewing’s solution appears to be to file this meritless lawsuit against MillerCoors.”

That may sound harsh, but then again, this pushback shouldn’t be a surprise in light of the aggressive criticism throughout Stone Brewing’s complaint, as discussed in my previous post.

For all of MillerCoors attacks of Stone Brewing’s “publicity stunt,” the same label could be applied to the answer and counterclaims, which appear to focus on developing a counter-narrative and managing public perception, in light of the extensive rhetoric, some of which isn’t necessary or particularly relevant to the legal claims.

How do you think this one will turn out? With both sides so clearly invested in this lawsuit being about public relations, marketing, and/or a “publicity stunt,” I wouldn’t be surprised if this lawsuit settles without going very far, to avoid the significant risks of negative PR on both sides. Stay tuned for updates.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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