Above is the famous logo of Red Bull, the Austrian energy-drink giant. Besides adorning millions of cans, the red bulls adorn race cars, soccer jerseys, airplanes, extreme sports events and even a record label.
Also above is the logo of the Old Ox Brewery, an Ashburn operation that opened in June 2014, and can be found on tap in bars throughout Northern Virginia. The brewery plans to produce a relatively modest 2,500 barrels in its first year.
While there's nothing in either logo to suggest the brands are related, Red Bull wants to make sure, and they want to make the brewery change its name.
Ten months ago, before Old Ox had created its first batch of beer, its owners received a letter from lawyers representing Red Bull GmbH, notifying them that Red Bull objected to their trademark application for the brewery name and logo, which at the time was a script design of a bull's face. They also objected to the slogan the brewery was using, which was "No Bull Beer."
"We felt it was a series of issues that could be taken care of on an informal basis," says Graham Burns, Old Ox's chief financial offer. "We're willing to do certain things. We've promised we won't make energy drinks. If there's a specific shade of red they want us to stay away from, let us know."
"But they didn't just want us to not use red," Burns continues, "They didn't want us to use any blue or silver, which are the colors on their cans. Every time we heard from them, it got more and more complicated. It became clear from the nature of the opposition that they opposed to the name of the brewery altogether."
"I don't want to play the David and Goliath card here," Burns says, but he objects to Red Bull's "claim to have the copyright on all things bovine."
Sure enough, one of the points in Red Bull's most recent filing of opposition to Old Ox's trademark is this point: "An 'ox' and a 'bull' both fall within the same class of 'bovine' animals and are virtually indistinguishable to most consumers. In addition, an ox is a castrated bull."
Red Bull has never made a beer. Old Ox has never made a beverage called Red Ox, though they've made a few beers with colors in the name, including Black Ox porter and Golden Ox ale. And rather than a particular bovine, the brewery's name comes from Old Ox Road, the Loudoun thoroughfare which dates back to the early 18th century.
This isn't the first time Red Bull has objected to a brewery's name and logo: In 2013, Red Bull challenged the trademark of England's Redwell microbrewery, claiming it was "likely" consumers would confuse the names "Redwell" and "Red Bull." That dispute was settled after Redwell promised not to make energy drinks.
Old Ox made a similar offer to Red Bull, but Burns says the brewery won't rule out eventually producing soft drinks, such as root beer, which was a demand of Red Bull's. "We have a tap room and people come in [who don't drink] – designated drivers, or maybe a couple where one of them doesn't like beer, and we might want to serve them a root beer."
This prospective soda, according to Red Bull's filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, "is likely to lead to the mistaken belief that Applicant’s products are sponsored by, affiliated with, approved by or otherwise emanate from Opposer Red Bull, thereby damaging Red Bull."
Red Bull's most recent objection was filed on Jan. 28, and Burns says he's expecting things to drag on. "We've been told by counsel that this can go on two years or longer," he says, and in addition to the money spent on lawyers, he says the family-owned brewery is spending several hours per week working on the issue when they could be focusing on beer.
So, fed up with the dispute, Old Ox is taking its case to the court of public opinion. Yesterday, the brewery posted a snarky open letter to Red Bull on its blog, calling the energy drink giant "a big Red Bully."
"Do you own the color red? What about fuchsia, scarlet, crimson, or mauve? Are you planting your flag in the color wheel and claiming those shades for Red Bull? Do you claim exclusive rights to all things bovine? Do you plan to herd all heifers, cows, yaks, buffalo, bison, and steer into your intellectual property corral, too?"
They have yet to receive a response. You can read the full letter below.
Hey Red Bull –
You seem pretty cool. You sponsor snowboarders, adventure racers, rock climbers and motocross bikers. You launch people into space so that they can skydive back down to earth. That’s all really darn cool. For all I know, you’re reading this while strapping yourself into a Formula One racecar that is about to be lit on fire and jumped over a large chasm of some sort. How cool would that be? Feel free to give it a try.
Here’s the thing, though. You are being extremely uncool to us at Old Ox Brewery. We are a small startup brewery in Ashburn, Virginia. We’re family-run, we love beer, and we love our community. For reasons that we cannot understand, you have attempted to strong arm us into changing our identity for the last 10 months because you believe folks might mistake Old Ox beer for Red Bull energy drinks. We respectfully disagree. The only similarity between our two products is that they are both liquids. You make non-alcoholic (but very extreme) energy drinks. We make delicious (but laid-back) beer. Our consumers are looking for two distinctly different experiences from our respective products.
Basically you are holding us hostage with a list of demands that, if agreed to, would severely limit our ability to use our brand. Demands like, never use the color red, silver or blue; never use red with any bovine term or image; and never produce soft drinks. Do you own the color red? What about fuchsia, scarlet, crimson, or mauve? Are you planting your flag in the color wheel and claiming those shades for Red Bull? Do you claim exclusive rights to all things bovine? Do you plan to herd all heifers, cows, yaks, buffalo, bison, and steer into your intellectual property corral, too?
When we refused to succumb to your demands, you responded by filing a formal opposition to not just our trademark but to the very name Old Ox Brewery. Way to step on our American dream. You say you are protecting your intellectual property rights, but your claim, in our opinion, is Red B------t.
We can only interpret your actions as one thing—bullying. You are a big Red Bully. Just like that mean kid from grade school pushing everyone down on the playground and giving us post-gym class wedgies. You are giving us one hell of a corporate wedgie. We don’t appreciate it and we sure as hell don’t deserve it.
Is this really what you’re about? Are you a bully? Your extensive marketing campaigns (your glitzy advertising, your sponsored sports events, your death defying stunt shows, etc.) certainly don’t project that image. Take a hard look at your “case.” Can you honestly look at our brand and say, “this is a threat to my image?” We don’t think you can. Given that, we repeat our offer: We agree NEVER to produce energy drinks. In exchange, we are asking for one simple thing: Leave us alone. Drop this trademark dispute. The only people benefiting are the lawyers.
Sincerely and Uninfringingly Yours,
President – Old Ox Brewery