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Name Games: Starbucks vs. Sam Buck's


When Sam Buck opened a coffee shop in Oregon, she sparked a grande lawsuit.

In March, 2002, Sam Buck Lundberg, who ran a small coffee shop in the coastal town of Astoria, Oregon -- famous to people of a certain age, perhaps, as the town in which the much-loved 1980s kids' adventure film The Goonies was set and filmed -- received a letter from someone with whom she had a lot in common. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Lundberg's coffee shop was called Sam Bucks, a reference to her maiden name. It was also, as even the most unobservant shut-in would recognize, a jokey, harmless reference to coffee chain behemoth Starbucks (SBUX), who surely wouldn't be bothered about a tiny coffee spot in a town of less than 10,000, especially when their closest store was five miles distant, inside a Fred Myers in Warrington.

But they were. Lundberg's letter was from the Seattle-based chain, and it was, politely but firmly, telling her to cease and desist her coffee-related activities under the name Sam Bucks. The company offered her $500 for her troubles.

Lundberg was shocked, she later said. In 2005, she described her reaction to ABC News: "I thought, is this real? I mean, they're attacking me?"

By then, after a three year legal battle, the story had gone national, a classic David and Goliath story that the media couldn't help but salivate over, featuring a plucky home-town gal versus a bunch of city slicker corporate types. Can't a person even use their own name?, went the indignant cry.

The timing was perfect. Anti-Starbucks feeling, after the chain had spent years aggressively expanding across North America, was starting to peak. And the company had a recent history of what looked like corporate bullying. In the early and mid 2000s they'd gone after a variety of targets for perceived trademark infringement: a group of young Haida Indians in Canada's remote Queen Charlotte Islands had received a similar letter over their use of the name HaidaBucks for a local coffee joint. A Texan bar owner had run into trouble over selling his Star Bock Beer. Various satirical uses of the name and ubiquitous logo had been shut down. Overseas, less innocent infringers such as China's Xingbake, which used a green-and-white logo along with a name that sounded phonetically similar to the Chinese for Starbucks, were vigorously pursued.

And so Sam Bucks became a rallying cry for the Anti-Starbucks crowd, a sign that the company was, despite its progressive employee relations programs and touchy-feely westy-coasty marketing campaigns, just another corporation out to bulldoze its way to profits and monopoly.

But some observers pointed out that the company was just exercising good business practice: let HaidaBucks and Star Bocks and Sam Bucks flower and pretty soon, as harmless as they and their proprieters seemed, the Starbucks name – something the company had put considerable investment into establishing – would be worthless. Or worse yet, like Kleenex and Xerox before them, a generic term. It's called trademark dilution, and every prominent brand has to take measures to protect itself against it.

Others noted that the company hadn't launched their lawsuit until Lundgren had responded to their cease and desist letter and $500 offer with a counter offer, in which she said she'd give up her name, but only if the company ponied up $60,000.Was our David looking to make some quick cash?

Whatever the moral quandaries invoked by the case, there were two end results: Starbucks critics and anti-corporate activists got a new stick to beat the coffee chain with, and in 2006 a federal judge decided that Sam Lundgren was in fact in violation of the company's trademark. Aware that they were taking a bruising in the court of public opinion, Starbucks declined to make Lundgren pay their legal costs, though the ruling allowed them to, and sought no damages. On a PR roll, the company also came to amicable settlements with HaidaBucks and Star Bocks.

As for Sam Buck Lundberg? Well, she certainly became the most famous coffee merchant on the Oregon coast, but fame doesn't always come with wealth. Lundberg, who renamed her coffee shop Downtown Coffee, recently decided to hand over ownership of the store to a regular customer and her daughter.

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