Starbucks would be wise to leave “Dumb Starbucks” alone

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Hundreds have flocked to Los Feliz, California to line up at a store that’s half coffee shop, half performance art parody. “Dumb Starbucks” replicates the iconic Starbucks sign and logo, with the addition of the word “dumb” on all branding and menu items. (Update: In a press conference Monday afternoon, Nathan Fielder of the Comedy Central television show “Nathan For You” revealed that he was behind the shop. The Los Angeles Health Department shut it down for operating without a health permit.) 

Functionally, it’s a coffee shop, but in a list of frequently asked questions that baristas hand out, it legally needs to be viewed as a work of “parody art” in order to use the logo. As of yesterday, it was giving away all of its items for free.

Unless Dumb Starbucks starts actively selling coffee, it would be smart for the usually litigious Starbucks to leave this stunt alone. A company spokesperson has already said that while it appreciates the humor, the name is a protected trademark.

In the past, Starbucks sued comic book artist Kieren Dwyer over a parody logo. And when sued a small brewery over a beer called “Frappicino,” and the owner’s response letter went viral. In both cases, there was public backlash against a corporation responding so aggressively against individuals. This is likely to be the case here, too.

The shop refers to the “parody law” and “fair use” in its own informational flier asking about the legality of the operation. Given the lengths to highlight copyright law, it seems like this store was designed to provoke a response from Starbucks, and perhaps test the law. We reached out to the shop for comment but have not received a response.

Parody and fair use aren’t automatic or ironclad defenses of a trademark violation. But whether a commercial use exists makes it much more likely to be found illegal in the United States. Since the coffee is currently free, the operation could be defended as a parody.

But serving hour long lines of people free coffee is going to get expensive. Whether or not Dumb Starbucks starts charging, Starbucks would be wise to let the operators go broke or or wait for customers (and the media) to get bored rather than firing up the legal team.