In Los Angeles this past Friday (February 7, 2014), a brand new coffee shop opened up in a the neighborhood of Los Feliz to hour-long queues of people dying to get their hands on free mediocre coffee, pastries, and espresso drinks. The cafe was called Dumb Starbucks and appeared, in almost every way, to look exactly like another generic Starbucks franchise, but with the addition of “Dumb” in the names and titles of their products. I use the past tense in the last sentence because the life of this live parody of America’s favorite coffee shop has already come to a close — at least temporarily — as the health department shut Dumb Starbucks down as of yesterday afternoon for operating without a permit.
The elaborate prank, which came out to the public as a media stunt by Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder for his Comedy Central show “Nathan for You”, claimed that by using the word “dumb” in front of a copyrighted trade name, it was made clear that the fake business was an imitation, protected by the parody law. Fielder never applied or received a valid permit from the health department, they rationalized, because they didn’t charge customers for the coffee, and therefore should be categorized as an art gallery as opposed to a for-profit restaurant. Clearly, the health department disagreed on the latter argument and beat Starbucks Coffee Company to the task of ceasing and desisting Dumb Starbucks.
Don’t Mess With Starbucks
Starbucks, over the past couple decades, has become famous for shutting down (or attempting to shut down) small-time coffee shops and roasters for coming even close to referencing their name in products, titles and labelling. Family owned New Hampshire-based Black Bear Micro Roastery was sued by Starbucks in 2001 for copyright infringement over the use of the word “Charbucks” in the names of their products. Two months ago, in December 2013, Starbucks famously sent a cease and desist letter to Exit 6 Brewpub to change the name of their “Frappicino” brew, on the grounds that this word too closely resembles a registered trademark of Starbucks Coffee Company. Clearly, Starbucks was planning on at least threatening legal action towards Dumb Starbucks; their last official statement declaring the two are in no way affiliated. Lawyers specializing in intellectual property speculated that the argument that Dumb Starbucks could effectively exist on grounds that it was protected by a parody law was completely unfounded. An email from Starbucks to the media this past weekend stated, “”We are evaluating next steps and while we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark.” The health department surprised everyone by beating Starbucks to the task of shutting Dumb Starbucks down.