United States: Paging Mr. Charbucks...

Last Updated: December 16 2013
Article by John C. Blattner

Someone once said that the American legal system guarantees every corporation its decade in court. That came true with a vengeance for two corporations whose 12-year-long battle recently (and perhaps mercifully) came to an end when an appellate court ruled – for the third time – that the mark MR. CHARBUCKS for coffee did not violate the famous STARBUCKS trademark.

In 1997, a small New Hampshire coffee company called Black Bear Micro Roastery released a blend that it called "Charbucks Blend" (it later launched, and still sells, a different blend named "Mr. Charbucks"). Black Bear never denied that it chose the name at least in part because it wanted to evoke the mystique of the Starbucks brand. In this it succeeded, perhaps better than it might have wished.

In 2001 Starbucks sued Black Bear, claiming trademark infringement and dilution. The difference between infringement and dilution is that in an infringement claim, the goal is to protect consumers from being confused about the source of the alleged infringer's product – here, into buying MR. CHARBUCKS coffee because they think it comes from Starbucks.

In a dilution claim, however, the goal is to protect the trademark itself. A dilution claim alleges that the owner's mark is so distinctive and well known that any use of it (or of something similar to it) by anyone else – even if the goods and services are completely unrelated – is likely to weaken or "dilute" the commercial strength of the famous mark. As one of the doctrine's early proponents explained to Congress:

If you allow Rolls-Royce restaurants and Rolls-Royce cafeterias, and Rolls-Royce pants, and Roll-Royce candy, in ten years you will not have the Rolls-Royce mark any more.

There was a trial in 2005, which Starbucks lost. It appealed, and lost. But because Congress had in the meantime enacted a new dilution statute, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration of that issue. The case bounced back and forth a couple more times, always with the same basic result. Last month, Starbucks became a three-time loser when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit again affirmed the trial court's ruling that Starbucks had not established a viable dilution claim.

How did the courts arrive at this conclusion? The federal dilution statute sets forth six factors for determining whether one mark dilutes another by "blurring" its distinctiveness:

  1. How similar are the marks? Here, in effect, the courts found that STARBUCKS and MR. CHARBUCKS, while similar, were not all that similar. Point, Black Bear.
  2. How distinctive is the famous mark? Because STARBUCKS is such an unusual word in this context (it was the name of a character in the novel Moby Dick, who had no apparent connection to coffee), this factor weighed in favor of Starbucks.
  3. How unique is the famous mark? Since no one else had ever used STARBUCKS as a mark for coffee, this also favored of Starbucks.
  4. How famous is the mark? A mark has to be deemed "famous" to even get in the front door on a dilution claim in the first place. But Starbucks had little difficulty in going further and showing that its mark was really famous.
  5. Did the defendant intend to evoke the famous mark? Black Bear admitted from the outset that this was the case.
  6. Is there any measurable actual dilution of the famous mark? Starbucks introduced results of a survey in which about 30 percent of the respondents said that when they heard the name "Charbucks," it made them think of Starbucks. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the survey did not ask about reactions to "Mister Charbucks." The courts found that the survey demonstrated only "minimal" dilution.

The courts gave a great deal of weight to the dissimilarities in the marks, and to what they considered significant flaws in Starbucks' survey methodology. Conversely, they gave surprisingly little weight to Black Bear's admission that it was trying to create a mental association with the famous STARBUCKS mark, which is pretty much what a dilution claim is all about.

I confess that if Black Bear had come to me for advice back in 1997, I would have warned them that they were asking for a nasty fight, and that they would probably lose it. It turns out I would have been wrong – but only about the second part. The costs of a 12-year-long lawsuit, with three trips to the court of appeals, are humongous. Not too many clients want to spend that kind of money to preserve the name of one out of twenty coffee blends now offered on their web site. I can only assume that Black Bear must sell an awful lot of MR. CHARBUCKS coffee...

(By the way, the appellate court's opinion provides a fascinating, and admirably succinct, account of the history not only of this case but also of the dilution doctrine, which has seen its share of controversy through the years. You can read it here. )

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

John C. Blattner
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.