This article originally appeared in the 2.20.14 issue of Metroland
ou probably saw something about this fly by over the
You thought “huh?” and moved on
to more productive things.
talking about the “Dumb Starbucks” store that opened briefly in L.A..
A number of people sent me links to stories
about it, asking “can they do this?” and I’m thinkin’ “well, whoever they are
just did it, didn’t they?”
troubling question is why.
blissfully unaware, last weekend a facsimile Starbucks store opened in a strip
mall in Los Feliz, California.
very much like a regular Starbucks, from the wall-menus to the cups to the
aprons, except that everywhere the word “Starbucks” or other branding terms
appeared, the word “Dumb” also appeared.
Very soon there were long lines outside the place, which was giving away
The stunt didn’t have any
immediately obvious meaning.
There was a
FAQ sheet posted in the store that said that “Dumb Starbucks” was legal because
of “parody law.” It was just kind of, um... dumb.
And everybody was all like, “what’s the real
Starbucks gonna do?”
this was the “work” of this sad sack of shit named Nathan, an insufferable
doe-eyed host of a Comedy Central show none of us have heard of called Nathan For You.
I’ve watched several clips of past shows, in
which Nathan dourly sets up various absurdist situations involving business,
brands, and the like.
None of it is
particularly funny or even interesting.
Most of it doesn’t even seem real.
The upshot here is that Dumb
Starbucks got shut down on Monday.
by Starbucks, which had issued a short statement that it was looking into the
situation, but by the LA Health Department, for serving food without a
Comedy Central soon posted a short
clip of Nathan saying that Dumb Starbucks’ “name
meets the minimum requirements to be considered a parody under the law.”
Does it? To answer
this, it’s key to understand that we’re not talking about copyrights here, but
trademarks, so different rules apply.
Copyright protects creative works, trademark law protects commercial
names and symbols. In order for there to
be trademark infringement, there has to be shown a likelihood of confusion, that people will think that the alleged
infringer is actually related somehow to the trademark owner. And nobody, other than the proverbial “moron
in a hurry” could possibly think that Dumb Starbucks is associated at all with
the real Starbucks. People might be
confused about every single other aspect of Dumb Starbucks, but not that. Why else would they say “what is Starbucks
gonna do?” Right?
other legal concept that might be applicable here is that of brand dilution or
tarnishment. This is a hideous, ugly,
and thankfully little-used law that makes it illegal to use another’s mark in a
way that lessens that mark’s “distinctiveness” or harms the mark’s
“reputation.” Dilution and tarnishment
only apply to famous marks, and Starbucks is nothing if not famous. But does the law apply?
don’t think so. Dumb Starbucks doesn’t
dilute the Starbucks famous mark; rather, it celebrates it. Maybe “celebrates” isn’t the right word here,
but you get the idea. And tarnishment? Nope.
It’s hard to see how this is even a comment on Starbucks. As the guys over at Freakonomics brilliantly pointed out, Dumb Starbucks isn’t so much
a parody of Starbucks as it is a parody of parody. A parody of a freakin’ parody. When I first read that every rubber band in
my brain snapped at the same time.
almost enough to make me reconsider Nathan.
But not quite. We love our
conceptual art over here, when it’s done right.
All too often, though, conceptual art, performance art, is the smug
offering of someone desperate to prove that they’re smarter than you, but they
lack the mental acuity, depth, and technical skills to pull it off. They’re not smarter than you. They’re little more than attention
whores. And sad ones at that. Dada’s been done and Dada is dead.
is how this strikes me. Pointless. Like the Karadashians of humor and art. If you don’t pay attention to it it will just
go away, shorn of what little power it might have had. So let’s leave Dumb Starbucks right here, and
never speak of it again.
Paul Rapp is a
local art & entertainment lawyer who wants to know how long this horrible
cold is going to last.