Judge Blocks Brewery's Slam Dunk on Thelonious Monk

By George Khoury, Esq. on February 05, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Back in 2006, the North Coast Brewing Co. in Northern California's Mendocino County released a beer by the name of Brother Thelonious. A nearly 10 percent trappist style ale that has won awards and made a name for itself. Despite the accolades the beer has earned, it was named for the famous jazz musician, Thelonious Monk, with the permission of his son, who administers the deceased jazz legend's estate.

As part of the consent to use Monk's name, the brewery donated a portion of the proceeds to a charitable organization set up in Thelonious Monk's name. However, when Thelonious Monk Jr. discovered that North Coast Brewing had been using Thelonious Monk's likeness for more than just the craft beverage, he objected that merchandising was not within the scope of the consent he provided. After he revoked his permission and the brewery continued to produce and sell the beer, Thelonious Jr. filed suit.

Merchandising  in the Age of Craft Beers With Silly Names

The lawsuit alleges that the brewery used Thelonious Monk's image on brewery merchandise including cups, hoodies, playing cards, soaps, signs, and other products, including mouse pads. After all, everyone knows that the real money is made on merchandising.

And despite the lawsuit's many deficiencies, and the breweries seemingly slam dunk of a motion, a federal judge did not dismiss the case at the pleading stage. Rather the court found each of the plaintiff's failing claims to be more properly resolved after some more inquiry into the merits.

Court Allows/Fixes Deficient Complaint

Among the lawsuit's deficiencies is the fact that it pleads an unjust enrichment cause of action, yet, under California law, there is no cause of action for unjust enrichment. Nevertheless, the court refused to dismiss that claim and rather ruled that it will consider the unjust enrichment claim to be a quasi contract claim seeking restitution.

An additional deficiency is that trademark infringement is alleged while, as the court explains, the case is really a false endorsement case. Like the unjust enrichment claim, the court simply decided to construe the trademark infringement claim as a false endorsement claim.

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