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Coca-Cola is facing accusations of being a “trademark bully” after reportedly asking an independent coffee shop in a UK town to stop using the word ‘Honest’.
Reports in the Plymouth local newspaper The Herald yesterday, November 28, stated that Wyatt Cavalier and his wife Grace, who have run Honest Coffees since 2013, were told to change the name by Coca-Cola.
The report added that the couple received a letter from lawyers working for Coca-Cola saying the names Honest Coffees and a new offshoot Honest Milk are too similar to that of Coca-Cola’s subsidiary Honest Tea. The letter ordered them to change the name or face court action.
“It’s bullying and could drive us out of business,” Wyatt Cavalier said to the paper.
He added: “We’ll have to change the name of the website. This will cost us everything. We will have to start from scratch.”
He went on to question how Coca-Cola can trademark the term ‘Honest’, given that “there are loads of companies with ‘Honest’ in their name”.
Stephen Hodsdon, partner at Mewburn Ellis, said while the reports seem to suggest a “classic case of trademark bullying”, Coca-Cola appears justified to make the request.
“It should be remembered that trademarks and brands are important commercial assets that need to be protected to maintain their value and avoid confusion, dilution or tarnishment.
“That said, many practitioners will raise eyebrows at the fact that the European Union Intellectual Property Office registered ‘Honest Tea’ for goods including tea in the first place, and seemingly did so without evidence of acquired distinctiveness.”
Hodsdon further stated that the word ‘Honest’ would be seen by many “as a laudatory adjective and therefore the mark as a whole arguably non-distinctive”.
He continued: “It is also notable that the ‘Honest Tea’ mark has been registered for over ten years but, according to the Coca-Cola website, products under the brand were only launched into the UK last year.
“If there was no other reason for urgency (and Honest Coffees appears to have been trading for some time), the alleged sending of a cease and desist letter giving only a minimal time (seven days) for response appears to have been done deliberately to try to ‘scare’ Honest Coffees into capitulating.”
Joshua Marshall, associate at Fieldfisher, added that the case raises several conflicting issues in trademark law.
“On the one hand, Honest Tea are the proprietors of valid trademark registrations which are registered in the relevant classes of goods covering coffee, tea and other beverages in the UK and EU.
“On the other hand, the likelihood of a consumer confusing a Plymouth and online-based coffee business with an international conglomerate primarily trading in the US may be quite low,” he stated.
A second conflicting issue is the registration of largely descriptive words such as ‘Honest’ when used in conjunction with other words or symbols, he said.
“The use of the word by both parties is clearly intended to denote the purity or integrity of the products being sold. At times, small businesses may feel that the pool of resources available for branding is decreasing through such trademark registrations.”
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