For the London Free Press – March 14, 2014
Read this at lfpress.com
In February a “Dumb Starbucks” store appeared in Los Angeles. At first glance the coffee shop may have seemed like any other Starbucks store, but it gave away “dumb” versions of items sold by the Seattle-based coffee company, such as “Dumb Iced Espresso” and “Dumb Vanilla Blond Roast”.
People lined up to get in when it first opened, many probably thinking it was a real Starbucks. At least, that is, until they noticed the word “Dumb” in from of all the signage and product names, saw the interior, or actually tasted the products.
Dumb Starbucks turned out to be a publicity stunt. To extend the ruse, the creators anticipated the “how is this legal?” question. They published FAQs stating that because of parody exceptions to copyright and trademark law adding the word ‘dumb” meant that they were technically “making fun” of Starbucks. The shop said that by doing this, it allowed them to use the Starbucks trademark under a law known as “fair use.” The FAQ defined fair use as a legal doctrine that permits use of copyrighted or trademarked material in a parody without permission from the rights holder.
Although the shop was a fully functioning coffee shop, the FAQ stated “that for legal reasons Dumb Starbucks needs to be categorized as a work of parody art. So, in the eyes of the law, our ‘coffee shop’ is actually an art gallery and the ‘coffee’ you’re buying is considered the art”.
This legal explanation caused a bit of a kerfuffle for a short time until it became apparent that the FAQ was as fake as the store.
That legal explanation was a nice try, but conveniently overlooked some things. Such as the fact that fair use exceptions like parody rely on a fairness test and are not absolute. And the fact that the basic purpose of adding “Dumb” to the Starbucks brands was to trade on the goodwill Starbucks has earned for their brands.
Parody and satire have existed as fair use exceptions to copyright and trademark law in the United States for some time. They were added to Canadian copyright law in 2012. The Canadian Copyright Act states that fair dealing (as it is called in Canada) for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright.
To determine whether fair use or dealing is indeed fair, the courts look at criteria such as its purpose; its character; the amount; available alternatives; the nature of the work; and the effect of the use on the original work. In other words, was it a reasonable thing to do, how necessary was it, and might it hurt the copyright owner?
This turned out to be a short-lived publicity stunt, but if anyone actually thinks they can trade on the goodwill of another’s brand by simply adding “dumb” to the name to turn it into a parody or satire they are just, well, dumb.