West Sixth Brewing CompanyAnyone who has their ear to the ground when it comes to craft beer knows that social media sites exploded this week when West Sixth Brewing Company opened up a can of public relations whoop-ass calling out Magic Hat for “corporate bullying.”

West Sixth Brewing Company opened in April 2012 in Lexington, Kentucky.  Founders Ben, Brady, Joe, and Robin decided that Lexington was in dire need of high quality local craft beer.  They started out with the pledge to have a beer garden that always housed a constantly changing lineups of local craft beers, a brewery that never sacrificed quality, and a moral pledge to minimize an environmental impact even if it meant a higher expense.

West Sixth hired Cricket Press to design a logo to represent their beer.  West Sixth, named after their address on West Sixth Street in Lexington wanted a logo that captured that name and Cricket Press designed the logo above.  The design clearly captures the sixth part of their brewery name with the compass rose being added to indicate the cardinal direction part.  It is a simple, yet elegant logo design that fits in well with other logos designed by Cricket Press.

It didn’t take long for drinkers of West Sixth’s beer to notice a similarity between the Cricket Press design and Magic Hat’s signature #9 beer.  Lexington’s local beer news website’s announcement of the opening of the brewery has comments (before the brewery even opened) noticing the similarities of the two logos.  Commenter John King wrote “Looks very similar to Magic Hat’s #9 logo…  http://www.magichat.net/elixirs/9/” with commenter Joel Halbleib responding to that comment with “First thing I thought of as well.”

Months later in early September blogger Kevin Patterson, writing for the same website, had this to say when reviewing West Sixth’s IPA:

From the sleek can design, which reminds me slightly of Magic Hat #9′s logo, to the seductive citra hops that stand front and center, this avant-garde American IPA confidently caresses the taste buds of the connoisseurs and allures the uninitiated to the hoppy side with ease. [emphasis added]

Beer Advocate users and at least one reviewer also remarked the similarity in logos as early as 5/22/2012 with more web references coming out as people get involved on both sides of this issue.

On September 26th, 2012 Magic Hat IP, LLC by way of Harter Secrest & Emery LLP sent a letter to West Sixth Brewing Company claiming that their logo was an infringement of Magic Hat’s trademarks.  The specifically cited the following objections.

This mark displays the number “6” (inverted 9) in a stylized font.  The numeral 6″ is fashioned in a “puffy” font with notably wider sides, a curved “tail” with a rounded edge and a circular end point top, with on side of the number “6” integrated into a surrounding stylized circular motif.  The logo features dark and light contrasting colors to emphasize the curves and rounded edges of the numeral.  The mark also features a stylized star dingbat with the circular motif.  Of particular note, although your company is “West Sixth,” no “th” is included in the logo, nor is the word “west” displayed. [emphasis is original]

Magic Hat’s lawyers go on to say that Magic Hat has owned and used the trademark #9 since 1995 and #9 has been sold in Kentucky since 2009, long before West Sixth was even opened.

West Sixth Brewing objected to a lot of these concerns.  Threatening to sue because the number six is just an inverted nine does seem insane.  As well as the numeral six is a light color atop a dark background seems so vague of a complaint to be irrelevant.  Yet Magic Hat openly admits that #9 is their best-selling and most notable beer they produces and is highly protective of that brand.  In 2010 Magic Hat had a similar naming dispute with Georgetown Brewing forcing the brewery to change the name of the 9lb porter to the Georgetown Porter. Apparently if your beer has the number nine it is rife for a cease and desist.

None of us at the Blind Tiger Podcast are lawyers let alone trademark experts so we aren’t comfortable judging one way or the other whether Magic Hat’s claims are valid.  What we are comfortable in saying, in our opinion, there are many similarities in logo.  I would argue that these similarities are accidental and the result of good design practices by Cricket Press and not trying to recreate the Magic Hat logo in a pernicious attempt to confuse consumers.

14A698956EAADBD111C891E8958F0526-450-1Truemiddlecenterpad upsidedownIf you look at the West Sixth Brewing logo inverted next to the Magic Hat logo you can see them similarities.  The nines while different are extremely close in look and feel.  Similarly the West Sixth’s compass rose is extremely similar in location and feel to the Magic Hat octothorpe.  While I think written out line by line the objections seem silly but when viewed side by side in the manner above I think it becomes obvious that Magic Hat’s concerns with consumer confusion are not completely unfounded.

This is where the story gets really interesting and kind of stupid.  On Tuesday West Sixth Brewing posted on Facebook and on their company website posting a call to arms to get fans of their brewery to sign this petition directed at Magic Hat.

I’m a passionate craft beer drinker.

I don’t support your lawsuit against West Sixth Brewing in Lexington, KY and think you need to stop being a corporate bully.

Please drop your lawsuit immediately.

This set off a social media firestorm as 16,000 plus people signed the petition calling for Magic Hat to drop the legal action against West Sixth Brewing.  Magic Hat responded claiming that they had been in talks with West Sixth to settle things amicably outside of legal action.  Ryan Daley, brand manager of Magic Hat replied,

Our first step was to reach out to them. We hoped to handle it amicably. We had no desire to file a lawsuit against a fellow brewer,” said Daley. “We thought we had made a lot of progress with West Sixth. They agreed in principle to modify their design. And now they’re going back on their word, and are attempting to tarnish our image instead.

Magic Hat then released the correspondence between the two breweries illustrating that West Sixth had agreed to the following.

  • Remove the design element that mirrors Magic Hat’s #9 starburst/dingbat star packaging;
  • Use and promote the wording West Sixth Brewing in conjunction with the design (Magic Hat agrees that this will help eliminate confusion);
  • Work in good faith to phase out and replace any existing materials that may contain the prior version of the encircled “6” design;
  • Amend its current federal trademark application or re-file the application with the new design.

Magic Hat then claimed that West Sixth, after agreeing to these terms, “abruptly changed their minds and refused to take the simplest steps to avoid confusion and a lawsuit.”  Daley went on to express that due to this change of heart Magic Hat feels it has no choice but to pursue legal action to protect their brand.

West Sixth shot back correcting what they felt were misrepresentations of the facts.

  • You claim that you worked for months in good faith to negotiate with us. Actually, in our letters, which you’ve published, anyone can see that we’ve waited on a reply from you from our last letter for nearly 3 months. In that letter, we made several concessions in the last offer, including to keep the words “West Sixth Brewing” near our logo in any further designs. But instead of responding with a call, or a letter, you responded with a lawsuit. That’s not negotiating, that’s bullying.
  • You said that “talks between the two breweries started in September of 2012 after marketplace concerns surfaced by a Kentucky wholesaler who refused to carry West Sixth Brewing because he felt it too closely resembled Magic Hat.” Unfortunately, that isn’t true at all. We have two distributors who distribute both us and Magic Hat without any sort of confusion. We’re sorry that this is what you were told. What actually happened between us and your distributor is this: After we had advanced negotiations to sign with your distributor they were told by another brand they carry that they should not distribute our beer.

West Sixth went on to say that they are happy to agree (as their last letter that went unanswered for three months) to concessions 2-4.  Namely including their new logo in future items,  phasing out any merchandise with the old logo, and amending their federal trademark to include something different from the compass in the logo.  West Sixth’s only objection is that a trademark to the number nine should not extend to competitors not being able to use the number six as well.  A very reasonable complaint from an outsiders perspective.

West Sixth even went so far as to offer, publicly, alternative options they are comfortable moving toward if Magic Hat was agreeable.

Magic Hat responded on their Facebook fan page Wednesday saying:

We’d like to thank our fans out there who have offered their support over the last day or so. It is great to see that because of your support West Sixth is now willing to revisit the areas they previously agreed to in an effort to find a resolution. We will be reaching out to them to discuss directly rather than engage in any more back-and-forth on social sites. Thanks again for your support.

Yet this didn’t stop West Sixth from posting the following yesterday:

On Tuesday night, Cerveceria Costa Rica (owners of Magic Hat IP) posted 4 conditions to outline a way to settle our differences. On Wednesday morning, we accepted all 4 conditions and showed them 4 different new options for our logo. All they had to do was select one of them.But it’s been more than 24 hours, and we still haven’t had a response to our offer.

In that time, Magic Hat has accused us of lying, damaging their brand, and then asked us to stop talking publically about the dispute. Of course, that last part is the one that really matters to them.

Our campaign is winning. We’ve got their attention. Nearly 15,000 people have joined our campaign to tell Magic Hat “No More”. If you haven’t yet signed it, please go here and do it right now.

Followed by one of the West Sixth Brewing founders doing a reddit Ask Me Anything.

Which brings us to today.  What an amazingly ugly public relations nightmare for both sides in this logo battle.  My personal feelings are that there is enough blame to go around.

While I am no fan of frivolous litigation I do understand the importance of brand recognition.  If another beer podcast started called “The Blind Lion Podcast” with a similar looking logo I would want to work through whatever legal means available to make sure they were not trading on whatever popularity or brand recognition we have.  But I think there is a point where complaints can go to the absurd.

I think West Sixth is being being obtuse about Magic Hat’s objections.  Given their proposed alternate logos, same objections can and most likely will be made by Magic Hat.  It isn’t specifically about the compass rose, it is about the font of the number and how when the logo is inverted (which happens when looking at bottles and cans) it does look extremely similar (if accidentally) like the Magic Hat #9 logo.

While I think Magic Hat’s quick to jump to the legal team on this issue, especially given West Sixth’s stated desire to work things out without going to court, could be considered bullying I think West Sixth’s passive-aggressive social media campaign could be considered bullying in its own right.  Intentionally framing it as a battle of David vs Goliath (anyone else notice the allusion to Cerveceria Costa Rica to imply Magic Hat is an evil mega-corporation and devoid of its craft beer roots) in order to shame/guilt/harass Magic Hat into a position of concession while effective certainly seems like bullying to me.

Not having access to the behind the scenes I will say it is hard to determine who is really at fault and who is really to blame.  Personally I think the solution is simple.  I would love to see Magic Hat shell out some dough for a 50/50 redesign of the West Sixth Brewing logo.  When both parties are happy with the design West Sixth can change to that.

West Sixth is small and new enough I don’t feel they will lose scores of business if their logo changes.  Yet I don’t think Magic Hat should just be able to decree a significant logo overhaul without some contribution themselves to help a small and growing business.

I hope they work it out.  Be sure to stay tuned for updates as this story progresses.