“Dumb” Starbucks: “Dumb” Move?

By Wilson Lau

On February 8, 2014, a new coffee shop opened its doors in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. According to the general consensus, the shop’s coffee is “pretty awful,” yet people were willing wait in line for an hour to get a cup of coffee from the new shop. So, what kept these people in line? While curiosity may tempt a few people to try the new coffee shop, more likely than not, it has something to do with its name: Dumb Starbucks. According to patrons, Dumb Starbucks looked identical to the real Starbucks—that is, except for the word “dumb” placed in front of everything.

The mastermind behind Dumb Starbucks is Nathan Fielder, a comedian on Comedy Central. Fielder apparently believes that the real Starbucks cannot sue him because, by adding the word “dumb,” he is technically making fun of Starbucks, and parodies are protected under the Fair Use doctrine of trademark law. According to one court, “[a] parody must convey two simultaneous—and contradictory—messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody.”[1] In the case of Dumb Starbucks, Fielder would most likely satisfy this court’s definition of parody because of the shop’s FAQs listed on the premises, describing the company as a parody. In addition to their FAQs, the baristas working at Dumb Starbucks also told patrons that they are not affiliated with the real Starbucks.

While Fielder may have intended Dumb Starbucks as a parody, Fielder would have still been vulnerable to a trademark infringement claim because of his thoroughness in imitating the real Starbucks. In addition to using the name, Dumb Starbucks also imitated the real Starbucks’ famous circle logo, menu, distinctive colors, and even the CDs that they sell! This extensive copying might just be too over the top to be “fair use.”

In addition to a possible trademark infringement, Dumb Starbucks would have been open to another trademark claim: trademark dilution by tarnishment. Being a famous and distinctive mark, the real Starbucks is protected from tarnishment, which usually involves a violator putting a famous or distinctive mark on products of shoddy quality or using the mark in an unwholesome or unsavory context.[2] Here, the mark arguably meets both factors: (1) Dumb Starbucks’ coffee is awful, and (2) using the word “dumb” is unwholesome or unsavory.

Fortunately for Fielder, Los Angeles County Health Inspectors shut down his operation for not having a valid permit before he could be brought to court. While the real Starbucks was amused, they would likely have taken actions if the operation continued. And considering elaborate details appropriated by Dumb Starbucks, Fielder would have been in more trouble than he thought. Imagine getting sued for a “dumb” joke. Now, that’s a dumb move site.

[1] Cliffs Notes, Inc. v. Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. Group, Inc., 886 F.2d 490, 494 (2d Cir. 1989).

[2] Lynda J. Oswald, “Tarnishment” and “Blurring” under the Federal Trademark Dilution Act of 1995, 36 Am. Bus. L.J. 255, 263-264 (1991).