Hot water: Starbucks sues a citizen

How a San Francisco cartoonist ticked off the Seattle java giant

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Once upon a time, Kieron Dwyer was a frappuccino addict. Today, he’s in deep latte.

Last spring, the 33-year-old San Francisco cartoonist was sued by Starbucks for copyright infringement. Dwyer’s mistake? He messed with the Seattle java giant’s squeaky-clean trademark.

In mid-1998, Dwyer created a scathing parody of the famous Starbucks logo. Riffing on the ubiquitous coffee chain’s titular longhaired mermaid, Dwyer stuck a coffee cup in the creature’s hand, a cellphone in the other, and gave the chaste Ms. Starbucks prominent nipples and a navel ring. Instead of the familiar “Starbucks Coffee,” the outer circle now said “Consumer Whore” — with dollar signs instead of stars.

Dwyer, who paid the rent as a professional cartoonist for Marvel and DC Comics before launching his own comic book, Lowest Comic Denominator, began selling the parody logo via T-shirts and stickers on his Web site. The image, he says, captures the “crass, rampant commercialism in this country.”

Dwyer contends the idea was all in fun. Starbucks didn’t get the joke. Last April, they sued.

“It’s not funny,” says Starbucks spokesman Alan Gulick. “Someone is taking our property and altering it in an offensive way to make money.”

Starbucks hammered Dwyer with a temporary restraining order which banned him from displaying, marketing or selling the logo; it also sought a permanent injunction. Starbucks also demanded that Dwyer pay damages and hand over all T-shirt profits, even though Dwyer claims he sold the shirts at cost. (The company declined to say how much it was seeking in damages.)

“It’s beyond absurd,” Dwyer says. “Like carpet-bombing an anthill.”

In support of its lawsuit, Starbucks claimed the parody infringed upon the copyright of its real logo, tarnished the Starbucks trademark and violated California’s unfair competition laws.

It’s hard to see just how Starbucks — with nearly 2,900 outlets in 14 countries and $2 billion in revenue — could be threatened by Dwyer, an unassuming guy who lives quietly in the Presidio area with his girlfriend. But Dwyer seems to have touched a tender nerve.

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Starbucks grew to be a giant by portraying itself as a cozy, neighborhood spot, where people could lounge on cushy couches or read the paper while sipping on high-tech java. Being cast as a greedy corporate parasite hardly gels with its well-manicured image. (To its defense, Starbucks is often considered among the best companies in America to work for, extending a wide variety of benefits, including stock options, to all employees.)

Gulick says Starbucks reacted so strongly to Dwyer’s parody because, “It’s not fair to everyone who has worked hard to make Starbucks what it is today.”

Dwyer’s parody hasn’t exactly slowed Starbucks down. In the past year and a half, the caffeinated monster has continued its aggressive expansion in San Francisco and other big cities, challenging McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble and the Gap in instant recognition. Starbucks executives say they are still in the early days of the company’s growth cycle; Starbucks has its sights on 20,000 stores worldwide. In San Francisco itself, a city steeped in bohemian lore, many small coffeehouses have been driven out of business by Starbucks’ rapacity.

“They represent things that aren’t healthy,” Dwyer says. “They are predatory and virus-like.”

So how does this David vs. Goliath saga end? Last Friday, federal Judge Maxine Chesney issued a mixed ruling. According to the judge, Dwyer’s parody doesn’t infringe on Starbucks’ trademark. Chesney added there was little chance that anyone could confuse the two.

Nevertheless, the judge did rule that the Starbucks logo was indeed tarnished because of Dwyer’s use of the word “whore.”

Meanwhile, Dwyer can continue using and distributing his logo; he just can’t sell it for a profit.

Both sides are claiming victory.

Paul Brandus is a writer and television producer in New York.

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