Things I do with words - Moose-based beer battle brews

Moosehead and Müs Knuckle are two breweries in a battle over trademarks. Short version, Moosehead says that Müs Knuckle is too close to their trademark for beer. The idea is that Müs Knuckle could be confused for a Moosehead product, or at least that’s what Moosehead thinks, and that’s why they are going after the smaller, Saskatchewan-based brewery.

Let’s consider the larger brewery’s case. Moosehead believes that when people think about moose-based beer, their brewery is the most common association. Their challenge to Müs Knuckle is based on the idea that the smaller company’s name would lead to consumer confusion and step on the larger company’s sales – the idea, in effect, that people would think that Müs Knuckle is a sub-brand of Moosehead, akin to how Bud Light and Budweiser are related. They also object to the packaging design, though the only real similarity is a green bottle used by both brands.

The case is a bit of a stretch, largely due to a lot of the specific choices that Müs Knuckle has made. The packaging is not very similar outside of the glass used, the Regina company going with a predominantly blue label design in a diamond shape, whereas Moosehead is oval, green, and has a moose as part of the logo itself. The fact that Müs is also deliberately misspelled is another aesthetic choice that works to the advantage of the smaller company, it can be argued that they are trying to distance themselves from their more established competitor by stylizing their name.

Moosehead’s case relies on them being the only moose-based beer in the country, or at least the first brand people think about when they hear about a connection between moose and alcohol, somewhere below hunting accidents and above poorly thought out rutting. They have to argue that the new brand is trying to jump on their coattails and confuse consumers in their attempts to establish a presence.

As many jokes as can be made about the respective names of their lagers, this is actually an important case, because it would set precedence for just how far a trademark can stretch. If Müs Knuckle loses, that means in spite of not actually sharing a word with a trademark holder – Müs is effectively made up – a company could still be considered in a trademark violation if part of the name sounds similar enough to part of the other brand. That legal precedent would make it a lot harder for other new companies to build a brand, they would have to find brand names that share nothing with a more established company, even if the joke they are trying to make – and Müs Knuckle has its base in a joke about anatomy – is quite different from what the brand they are being accused of knocking off.

I can understand the accusation in some cases, and the inclination for Moosehead to try to protect their brand in this case. Going back to a different brand, if a new beer in a red bottle named “Buddy’s Wiser” beer it would be clear that Budweiser would have a case against that brand. In effect, Moosehead’s case is trying to find the limits to a brand. Müs Knuckle is not similar in very many meaningful ways, effectively just the word moose, but if Moosehead wins it would mean that moose is enough to be a brand.

It’s our natural inclination to go for the underdog in cases like this, but in this case it’s the right instinct. The reason is that the Müs Knuckle brand is far enough out from the design and image of Moosehead that it’s clear this is a very flimsy case, as well as a case that is meant to push just how far the larger brand can take their trademark. It’s also a case where the intended purpose of the trademark – reducing consumer confusion – is being used to push competition in the sidelines. A smaller company, Müs Knuckle would have difficulty paying for a massive re-branding, especially as it would have to spend a great deal of effort trying to get their audience to recognize the new name and package. It could be a death blow to a brand that is quietly establishing itself, and a blow caused by a brand that is not substantially similar to the new product.

Trademark laws are not a bad thing, consumers benefit from a lack of confusion over who makes products and what they represent. This case shows that pushing trademark laws to the limit are not serving the stated purpose of protecting consumers from knockoff products, but instead preventing smaller operations from establishing themselves in the market. Whether or not you like either Moosehead or Müs Knuckle, they are clearly separate products and not something that should cause consumer confusion on any level. If Moosehead wins the case, however, it could mean that a lot of brands will be able to take down new brands who are trying to accomplish something very different, and that is bad for competition.

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