Court: Small coffee roaster can use 'Charbucks' name for dark blend

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TUFTONBORO, N.H. — A small New Hampshire coffee producer that operates out of a barn has prevailed in a trademark infringement case brought by Starbucks over a blend called "Charbucks."

"We're just a mom-and-pop little roastery," said Annie Clark, who with her husband, Jim, owns Black Bear Micro Roastery in Tuftonboro. They were sued in 2001 in federal district court in New York by Starbucks, which alleged the name "Charbucks" infringed, tarnished and blurred its famous trademarks.

Starbucks appealed to the 2nd U.S. Court Circuit Court of Appeals after Black Bear prevailed in district court. The appeals court agreed with the district court in a decision Friday, saying Starbucks didn't prove its case.

Charbucks, introduced in 1997, is Black Bear's darkest roast coffee. The appeals court noted that "one of the reasons Black Bear used the term 'Charbucks' was the public perception that Starbucks roasted its beans unusually darkly." But it agreed with the district court in finding minimal similarity and weak evidence of actual association between the brands.

"Their sales haven't been hurt," Clark said, noting that Black Bear's haven't changed much over the years. "Their growth hasn't been hurt."

Seattle-based Starbucks respects but disagrees with the court's decision, said spokesman Zack Hutson.

"We only filed the suit after a prolonged but unsuccessful attempt to enlist Black Bear's cooperation and to resolve this matter without litigation," Hutson said Monday.

Starbucks, as a responsible trademark owner, was asking only for an injunction against the use of "Charbucks," he said. The case did not involve monetary damages.

Starbucks can ask for a rare hearing before the full appeals court, or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hutson didn't say whether it would appeal further.