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United States – Trademark – Unions and Logos: Where is the Line When Analyzing Design Elements?

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Brooks Kushman




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When we think of trademark infringement, we typically don’t think of unions.


United States
Intellectual property


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When we think of trademark infringement, we typically don’t think of unions. However, in recent headlines, three different companies have claimed that their unions have infringed on their trademarks. These companies, Trader Joe’s, Medieval Times and Starbucks, have all made similar arguments alleging confusion based on the union’s use of the company name and/or brand design elements. Although both the Trader Joe’s and Medieval Times cases were dismissed for failure to state a claim, the Starbucks case is still pending after both parties filed lawsuits. Clearly, companies should not use trademark law to suppress union activity and that use of the company name by a union should be permitted through nominative fair use, which generally permits the use of a trademark by third parties to identify the goods or services of the trademark owner. But where should the line be drawn when it comes to a union’s use of design elements that resemble the company logo and/or other brand elements?

In the case of Trader Joe, we mainly see the following logos:

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Even upon a detailed assessment, these logos do not look alike. As noted by the court, the only similarities are the color red and the use of a circle design. Besides these similarities, all other design elements differ, including the fonts. Additionally, the top logo, the union’s main logo, features a prominent fist design associated with the labor movement. The second logo has very distinctive and colorful design elements that are not found in Trader Joe’s logo. Furthermore, none of the union’s logos feature a fruit basket design and the concentric circles are very different. The court therefore found no likelihood of confusion.

We see a similar situation in the Medieval Times case, which features the following logos and brand elements:

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In this case, the logos and brand elements may be even less similar than in the case of Trader Joe. First, it is notable that in addition to arguing similarities in the logos, Medieval Times also alleges confusion based on additional brand elements not included in the logo. This seems like a range, especially since these design elements consist of features commonly found in castles or medieval themes such as shields, swords, arched doorways, battlements, and parapets. The only similarities between the logos and brand elements are the red and yellow color schemes, but otherwise the design elements differ significantly. For example, in the union’s logo, MEDIEVAL TIMES is displayed in a black font that is different from the Medieval Times logo. Additionally, similar to Trader Joe’s union logo, we see a fist placed prominently in the center of the logo with additional text clarifying its affiliation with the logo. As in Trader Joe’s case, the court found that there was no likelihood of confusion and the case was dismissed for failure to state a claim.

We now arrive at the Starbucks store where we encounter the following logos:

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Upon a cursory and detailed assessment, the similarity in these logos feels different. They have the same shape, same design of concentric circles and similar star design and colors. Although this union’s logo also includes a fist, the fist appears with a shaker that you often see at Starbucks. Therefore, this design could instead be seen as mixing a drink and therefore less associated with the labor movement. Although this logo contains the phrase “Workers United”, the similarity of the design elements makes it more difficult to notice the additional wording. Although Starbucks recently adopted a new logo that does not feature the circle design, this older iconic logo is still used by the company.

Perhaps most indicative of the similarities is the evidence of actual confusion. The current lawsuits stem from a social media post from the union stating “Solidarity with Palestine” on October 9, 2023. The union claims the message was posted on social media without the union leaders’ permission and was online for about 40 minutes before it was deleted. However, Starbucks claims it has received more than a thousand complaints, hostile customers and even vandalism in response to the post. Furthermore, some lawmakers have even called for a boycott of Starbucks due to the incident. It will be interesting to see how the court handles this evidence of actual confusion in considering the case.

Compared to Trader Joe’s and Medieval Times, the Starbucks case seems different. Perhaps the Starbucks union has adopted too many design elements associated with the iconic Starbucks logo, leading to actual confusion in the marketplace and reputational damage. The court has yet to rule on this case, but it is unlikely to be dismissed via a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim. Trade unions should be allowed to use the name of the company whose employees they represent in the context of a nominative fair use analysis. However, including a large portion of the design elements associated with the company logo or other branding seems to cross a line. This brings us back to one of the essential elements of nominative fair use, which involves using only as much of the mark as is reasonably necessary to identify the given product or service. Is it reasonably considered necessary for unions to incorporate similar design elements, even if only a small portion of them are used? The courts have already answered this question in the affirmative by dismissing the Trader Joes and Medieval Times cases through motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. However, any use of distinctive design elements beyond a small portion may be more than reasonably necessary to identify the unionized company. Hopefully, in the Starbucks case, as well as in future similar cases, courts will further consider the nominative fair use doctrine when assessing a union’s use of design elements similar or identical to its logos and branding a company. With this framework in mind, courts can then develop adequate case law to determine where the line should be drawn.

The contents of this article are intended to provide general guidance on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your specific circumstances.