Last night comedian Nathan Fielder — star of Comedy Central’s Nathan For You — stepped forward and revealed that he was behind the “Dumb Starbucks” coffee shop that everyone has been freaking out about for the past few days. Of all the possible outcomes, this was almost certainly the best one. Fielder is a prank god, as we’ve seen before with his “Twitter experiments” and, well, pretty much everything that happened in the first season of his show. I mean that. If you haven’t watched Nathan for You, do it now. Right now. Quit your job and go home.
But anyway, now that the fun part of the story is over, one question remains, as it always does: WHO’S SUING WHO? Answers: the real Starbucks and Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom. Maybe!
Starbucks already commented on the matter, telling reporters “They cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark,” which Viacom countered with the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter:
“The episode relating to Dumb Starbucks’ constitutes protected free expression. Viacom takes intellectual property rights seriously, and also recognizes the important constitutional protection afforded to expressive works characterized by social commentary.”
This is where the fact that it was done for a TV show comes in. The original Dumb Starbucks FAQ said the store could get away with using the Starbucks name because it was engaging in parody, which some legal commentator thought was bunk because of the way the store went about it, basically just tossing “dumb” in front of lots of real products.
Lawyers who specialize in trademark and copyright law say not so fast. While parody is generally a protected form of speech, there is no clear-cut legal definition of what separates legitimate parody from trademark infringement. The reality is, any infringement case that makes its way into a courtroom will be evaluated on its own merits, with judges weighing various factors against a body of existing legal precedents. Historically, cases could go either way.
“Parody is really tricky,” said Leslie J. Lott, a founding partner of Lott & Fisher in Coral Gables, Fla., which specializes in intellectual property litigation. “You’re making a joke based on the original trademark owner, so the parody you come up with has to bring to mind the original, or there’s no joke. But if you don’t make it clear to people that you’re not really Starbucks — that you’re making fun of Starbucks — then you failed as a parodist, comedically and legally.”
But if it was done for a comedy series, as opposed to just as a way make money while ticking off a multinational coffee chain, then that might give Fielder and Comedy Central a little more cover. And as they said in their statement, the people at Viacom are really serious about intellectual property rights, so if they’re publicly behind the stunt, that might be saying something, too. (Although the “thing” it’s saying might be “We will fight any legal action because we want to keep all of our money,” so there’s also that.)
So does Starbucks have a case? Long story short: Possibly! At least the lawyers are getting paid. That’s what’s important here. I hope Starbucks sues and Fielder brings back seven-year-old Amir for the deposition. I want “Do you like skateboarding?” in the official record.