Lagunitas to Drop Suit Over Sierra Nevada's 'IPA' Label Design

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 14, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

From pomegranate juice to something I understand: beer. Lagunitas, maker of hoppier-than-thou India Pale Ales (IPAs), filed a lawsuit against the other national brewer of IPAs, Sierra Nevada, claiming trademark infringement.

But after negative reaction on social media, Lagunitas owner Tony Magee announced late Tuesday the company planned to drop the lawsuit, SFGate reports.

What was the issue? No, Lagunitas wasn't brazen enough to claim that it owned the letters "IPA." Rather, like POM Wonderful, it claimed that the packaging design on Sierra Nevada's IPA was too similar to Lagunitas'.

What Do Pomegranate Juice and IPA Have in Common?

In its soon-to-be-dropped lawsuit, Lagunitas asserted the "IPA" on the label for Sierra Nevada's new "Hop Hunter IPA" is a little too close to Lagunitas' "large, bold, black, centralized 'IPA' lettering." (Well, Sierra Nevada's is more like a dark, dark green, but hey, who's counting?) According to Lagunitas, this would lead, and in fact, has led, to customer confusion between Sierra's IPA and Lagunitas' to the point that customers might think they're -- gasp -- working together!

The key to POM Wonderful's success at the Ninth Circuit was that "POM" had no pomegranate-related meaning before POM Wonderful arrived on the scene. The Ninth Circuit panel acknowledged that the labels of both POM and Pur's pomegranate juices were kind of similar, but what put POM over the top was that lack of pomegranate-related significance.

The Proof Is in the Beer-Flavored Pudding

In this regard, Lagunitas would've had a harder road to hoe. India Pale Ales have been around since the 19th century, when the mythology holds that British sailors figured out that adding hops to beer acted as a kind of preservative -- especially on long voyages, like the ones to India (get it?).

That story's not actually true; IPAs are so named because they were developed by the British East India Company. Nevertheless, the phrase "India Pale Ale" has been around for a long time. The complaint, however, claimed that "no other company had marketed or sold its India Pale Ale using the acronym 'IPA'" before Lagunitas started doing it in 1995. That seemed like an assertion just ripe for proving.

Another thing Lagunitas would've had to prove -- that POM Wonderful successfully did -- is the strength of its trademark. When consumers think "IPA," do they think just of Lagunitas, or of India Pale Ales in general? There are lots of IPAs out there, and even though Lagunitas might be leading the (somewhat disgusting) trend toward hoppier and hoppier beer, it's not a foregone conclusion that they're synonymous.

The timing of Lagunitas' lawsuit was either suspicious, or not so suspicious. Sierra Nevada announced its "Hop Hunter" IPA -- with the allegedly infringing design -- back in October. Lagunitas sued about a week and a half after POM Wonderful won its case at the Ninth Circuit.

It just goes to show you that there's a lot of stratagem involved in filing a lawsuit -- and in dropping one too.

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