Starbucks loses trademark lawsuit to Morinaga Milk over mountain range logo

Starbucks argued that the Mt Rainier logo looked too similar to its own logo. PHOTOS: STARBUCKS/MORINAGA NYUGYO KABUSHIKI KAISHA

SINGAPORE - A Japan-based dairy company can register a trademark for its line of milk coffees, after an opposing claim made by coffee giant Starbucks was thrown out by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos).

Morinaga Nyugyo Kabushiki Kaisha, more popularly known as Morinaga Milk, filed a trademark registration for its Mt Rainier line of milk coffees and lattes for sale in Singapore in October 2013.

The black-and-white circular logo, with the Mt Rainier branding overarching a silhouette of the mountain bearing the name in Seattle in the United States, came under contention.

Starbucks opposed the registration on grounds that it looked too similar to its famous circular, green-and-white mermaid logo. It pointed out that the use of similar concentric circles was central to its brand recognition.

The Seattle-based coffee company added that Morinaga's logo made a "direct reference" to Seattle, which has strong associations with coffee and cafe culture and which is known as the " birthplace of Starbucks", according to judgment documents.

Morinaga was represented by lawyer Lim Siau Wen, while Starbucks was represented by lawyers Melvin Pang and Nicholas Ong.

In judgment grounds last Wednesday (Nov 22), Ipos intellectual property adjudicator Lorraine Tay found no similarities between the two logos.

The use of concentric circles were not distinctive identifiers of Starbucks, said Ms Tay.

"It is a very simple device which is reduced to being part of the background and cannot on any count be considered to be a dominant feature," she said.

Instead, "the outstanding and dominant features" of Starbucks' logo "are the word 'Starbucks' and the mermaid device", which are more visually distinctive and associated with the company.

This stands in contrast to Morinaga's logo, which features the text "Mt Rainier", supplemented by "The Mountain of Seattle" subtext and a picture of a mountain range.

She also dismissed Starbucks' arguments that Morinaga's use of Mt Rainier was intended to deceive the public into thinking the company's milk coffee came from Seattle, as the mountain is an iconic and well-known mountain in the Seattle region.

But the association of the mountain to Seattle is not a direct one, she said. Instead, she said that the logo title was more informative in naming the mountain that is plastered on the logo, rather than to evoke an association with Seattle and its corresponding coffee culture.

It is also unlikely that coffee drinkers here will make the connection so readily.

"Even if Mt Rainier is an iconic symbol of Seattle, the evidence does not establish that the average Singaporean (or even an average Singapore coffee drinker) would make this link or connection with Mt Rainier," she said.

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