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Multimillion-dollar beer industry trademark dispute goes to jury

An attorney for craft brewer Stone Brewing said Wednesday a jury should award $216 million for trademark damages caused by MillerCoors’ use of ‘stone’ in its marketing of Keystone Light.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The David versus Goliath story of the beer industry has more nuance than the ancient text.

San Diego-based craft brewer Stone Brewing, a leader in the early 2000s at a time the focus on “Slow Food” exploded across the United States, claims its success was derailed by beer conglomerate MillerCoors, now known as Molson Coors, when the company tried to revive waning sales of its economy beer Keystone Light by rebranding the lager.

The new, flashy bright blue Keystone Light beer cans featured the word “stone’ in a large, modern, slanted script, separate from the word “key,” which was in a smaller script. The new logo adorned beer cans which flooded store shelves in 2017.

Stone Brewing attorney Noah Hagey held up one of those cans during his closing arguments Wednesday in a three-week trademark trial stemming from a lawsuit the craft brewer brought against MillerCoors in 2018.

He said MillerCoors’ use of “stone” to rebrand Keystone Light is “probably one of the most profound corporate thefts to ever occur.”

“When your name, when your soul is infected and has been appropriated by somebody else, it is a sickness. There are a lot of ailments that go along with having the most important piece of your business attached to an entirely different product in a lower category,” Hagey told the eight-member jury.

He added: “We’re talking about billions of cans put into the market in 2017 that have irreparably harmed Stone and all Stone has stood for.”

When Stone Brewing filed suit in 2018, co-founder and executive chairman Greg Koch announced the lawsuit in a viral video where he offered a solution to resolve the dispute: “Put the ‘key’ back in Keystone.”

Throughout the trial, attorneys and witnesses for Stone Brewing zeroed in on the separation of “key” and “stone” on new packaging and cardboard cartons introduced when MillerCoors rebranded Keystone Light, which had been hemorrhaging sales and was outperformed 2:1 by other economy beers.

Through the rebranding, MillerCoors violated a trademark issued to Stone Brewing by the US Patent and Trademark Office in 1998, Hagey said.

Jurors must answer whether Stone Brewing proved MillerCoors infringed its “stone” trademark and, if so, the price tag of the damages.

Hagey suggested the award should be $216 million.

“What’s at risk now is what remains — whether Stone can return to what it is and what it is meant to be,” Hagey said, invoking testimony by Stone Brewing co-founder Steve Wager, who said last week they would lose the company if Stone Brewing doesn’t prevail in the trial.

Emphasizing a reasonable consumer couldn’t confuse the two products, MillerCoors attorney John Bunge held up the beer cartons in court for the jurors to see.

“Would someone going to the grocery store seeing this package and think it was this package,” Bunge said holding up a cardboard carton for a 30-pack of Keystone Light and comparing it to several of Stone Brewing’s IPAs including Scorpion Bowl and Fear Movie Lions.

“It’s a poor plan, a poor conspiracy because, for some reason, these conspirators put Keystone Light on the package over and over and over again,” Bunge said.

He noted how Stone Brewing and MillerCoors are positioned differently in the beer industry: Stone’s brews cost several times more than Keystone Light; the beers are sold in different states; and customers who purchase Stone Brewing are “die hard” craft beer fans while those purchasing Keystone Light are “laser-focused on price and value.”

Keystone Light had used the word “stone” in its advertising for decades, Bunge said, recalling the “hundreds of exhibits, pictures, boxes, clocks and promotions” shown in court during the testimony of MillerCoors’ archivist Tuesday.

“Is there any doubt they’ve been using this word since they started this brand in the early 1990s?” Bunge questioned, noting the nickname was given to the lager by customers.

While “key” and “stone” were separated on the revamped beer cans and on the side of cardboard cartons of Keystone Light, Bunge pointed to the cardboard box — “not here, not here, not here” — when noting all the “Keystone” references that remained intact.

He said when MillerCoors applied for the trademark renewal for “Keystone” with the USPTO in 2020, the government accepted the application which included a photo of the new can where “key” and “stone” were separated.

“At the end of the day there is no confusion, there is no case because every carton, every can of this beer had the word Keystone on it, Coors on it,” Bunge said.

The jury began deliberations late Wednesday afternoon.

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