Magic Hat vs. West Sixth brewhaha: will MH win the battle that costs them the war?
There’s a petition making the rounds on Facebook. The short version is that Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewing is suing Lexington, KY-based West Sixth Brewing for trademark infringement. West Sixth is asking the good citizens of Facebook to help them back Magic Hat off. You can read the post here, and it nicely explains the kerfuffle from West Sixth’s perspective. Have a look here for Magic Hat’s side of the story, and rest assured, their version differs from West Sixth’s.
Here are the logos in question. First, the full MH mark:
And here’s the West Sixth logo alongside the Magic Hat #9 Not Quite Pale Ale mark that is the point of gravest consternation.
My initial reaction was along the lines of “bite me, Magic Hat.” I’m someone who tends to believe that most corporate litigation is wankery (the main job of lawyers being to keep their profession healthy) and this is a case where I just don’t see the point. I’m not an attorney, but I have been a brand nazi (I sort of own that role with a couple of clients right now, in fact), so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the issues surrounding brand integrity and infringement.
My friend and former student Seth Michalak (one of the two or three best students I ever had the pleasure of teaching, in fact) isn’t so sure, and we’ve been back and forth this morning on the issue. He began thusly:
Seth: I’m no fan of Magic Hat, but have you seen the logos side by side? It’s fairly telling that West 6th uses the general Magic Hat logo and not the #9 logo that is in question on their site…
Well, they use elements of both. Yes, the W6 “6” is similar to an upside down MH “9,” but the eight-sided star resembles, sorta, the star on the MH primary logo. W6 uses a clean, symmetrical star as opposed to MH’s stylized “hippie” star, but it’s an eight-sided star paired with a “6” that employs a similar font to the MH “9.”
How similar are they? Well, close but not exactly. I broke out the Photoshop and did a little overlay for comparison sake.
I have no doubt that the W6 logo is, ummm, inspired by MH. But this kind of thing happens every day. I can easily imagine the folks at W6 telling the design firm that “hey, we like that Magic Hat look and feel – can you do something like that?” And designers being what they are – that is, sheep – the result is a logo that’s a good bit homage. But do you look at the two and get confused?
If imitating were a crime Apple could sue about a million companies. Wander through the world of corporate logo and Web design and count the number of sites that owe their souls to the Cupertino design team, which may be the most influential industrial design collective in history. You can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a Mac rip-off.
So sure – if I’m MH, I might be sneering at the wannabes, but suing them?
Seth: If people don’t get confused then what is the point of such an homage? It’s trading on someone else’s reputation by creating a link in the consumer’s mind. We both know that a lot of marketing happens on a subconscious level.
Good point. But. You can invoke an emotional response without confusing someone. In fact, you don’t want the imitation to rise to the level of conscious awareness. Once the customer starts thinking actively about it, you lose ground quickly. Brands work best at the emotional and, as you say, subconscious level. Feel is good, think bad. So if you’re going to imitate, do it subtly.
Listen, there are only so many ways that a logo can look. There are a finite number of visual identity approaches that are stylish and that speak to what you want to accomplish as a brand. If you look at the logo samples produced by that design shop, you’ll see a certain trendy, ragged-around-the-edges aesthetic that looks contemporary and familiar and slightly hip. Every single one of them is stylistically familiar, yet the best of the lot come off as fresh and engaging. (These guys aren’t my style, for sure, but they’re not bad at all for a local retail-focused designer.)
If you had never seen the MH logo, the W6 mark wouldn’t look even slightly out of place in that portfolio.
I’m not arguing that West Sixth isn’t ripping Magic Hat off. As I say, designers are sheep and just about every new logo you encounter is ripping somebody off, whether you know it or not. I have sat and watched very talented designers sift through online logo boards looking for things to steal. This is where SO many of them get their ideas. In this case, though, the core idea was apparently lifted from someone visible and established in the same industry, making the process a little more obvious than usual. Were I the brand nazi at W6 I’d have guided the process in a different direction because I don’t want to risk getting lost in someone else’s shadow, but I guess that’s just me.
But this doesn’t mean what they did is necessarily illegal. Ultimately that will be up to the courts to decide if it gets that far (which I doubt). It seems that MH is going to play hell trying to assert that they own a font family that existed long before they did or that another brewery shouldn’t be allowed to use a visual design concept that’s being used by who knows how many other businesses around the country already.
Seth: I would say check out some of the posts on Reddit that have Magic Hat’s side to this story before doing so. It rounds out the picture a bit more than the post from W6 alone does. W6 says Magic Hat doesn’t want to talk, and Magic Hat says they have talked and W6 walked away. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The point is that W6 likely isn’t the victim of a blindside that the post contends.
Oh, of this I have no doubt. I’m not going to look at those two logos side by side and conclude that West Sixth has all the angels on its side. I encourage readers to have a look at both of those links up top and draw their own conclusions.
In the end, I absolutely get why MH is annoyed, but this is one of those cases where winning the battle might cost them the war. Regardless of the outcome, they have allowed themselves to be cast as a big lawyered-up corporate bully in a dust-up with a brewery in feckin’ Kentucky that until now nobody had ever heard of. And not everybody is going to see the Reddit thread.
It seems to me that there is little to be gained legally and a lot to be lost on the PR front.