Last Thursday, Alamo Beer Company, LLC (“Alamo Beer”), Old 300 Brewing, LLC d/b/a Texian Brewing Co. (“Texian”) and the State of Texas settled an historical trademark dispute. The lawsuit, which began as a quarrel between two Texas breweries using the silhouette of the Alamo in their marketing materials, took an unexpected turn when the State intervened with claims of its own against unpermitted use of the famous landmark’s outline.
In light of recent legal activity between and against Alamo-branded beer companies, should the Texas-based Spoetzl Brewery (“Spoetzl”), which features a building façade on the labeling of its popular Shiner Beer selection, be taking a close look at the State’s asserted trademark rights?
Battle of the Alamo Trademarks
Since 1997, San Antonio brewery Alamo Beer has incorporated the “Alamo” name and the famous landmark’s silhouette on its beer bottle labels and in other branding materials. Alamo Beer alleges that Richmond, Texas-based brewery Texian also began including the Alamo silhouette on its logo, website, marketing materials and tap handle knobs shortly after the competitor’s formation in 2012.
In March 2014, after nearly a year of failed email exchanges, trademark cease-and-desist letters and awkward beer festival encounters, Alamo Beer filed an action in federal court in San Antonio against Texian for alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition. A month later, before Texian had even answered Alamo Beer’s complaint, the State of Texas intervened in the lawsuit. Referencing its federally registered trademarks in and to the “Alamo” name and “roofline,” the State argued that neither brewery has the right to use the famous shape.
Last Thursday, the three parties settled their year-long legal dispute. According to a statement issued by the Texas General Land Office in the wake of last week’s settlement, “Alamo Brewing Company is the first commercial recipient of an official license to use the Alamo mark, for which they paid a substantial licensing fee.” In contrast, Texian appears to have rebranded its logo with other famous images from Texas history, namely, cannon and star elements from the infamous “Come and Take It” battle flag. This time around, it seems that Texas might have come out ahead at the Battle of the Alamo.
The Spoetzl Brewery and Shiner Beer Labels
Shiner Beer – the pride of the small town of Shiner, Texas – was originally brewed for over forty years in an old tin shed. In 1947, to accommodate the beer’s growing popularity, Spoetzl built a new white-brick plant that is still in use today.
Unlike the rectangular adhesive labels on most bottles of beer, the front and neck labels of Shiner Beer bottles are distinctly shaped. According to the firm that redesigned Spoetzl’s labels in 2005, “the arched top on the bottle label replicates the façade of the old brewery in Shiner, Texas.”
Although the Spoetzl plant’s silhouette (and its replicated shape on bottles of Shiner Beer) is certainly not identical to that of the Alamo and the State of Texas’ trademark registrations, trademark law also protects mark owners against confusingly similar designs. Whether the Spoetzl and Alamo designs create a likelihood of confusion for consumers is a question of fact, and one that the State does not appear to be currently asking.
Texas: Remember the Alamo, but Don’t Use It Without Permission
The Texas Alamo trademark battle and subsequent settlement discussed above demonstrate the complexities associated with trademark infringement lawsuits; the power and value of a famous, federally registered trademark; and a handful of the legal pitfalls that owners of marks may encounter. Before designing or overhauling an important company brand, filing an application for trademark registration or initiating a trademark infringement action, brand owners should adequately assess all legal risks and plan accordingly.