Starbucks is backing off enforcement of its controversial Christmas Blend trademark for its coffee, in effect returning the name to the public domain.
The Seattle-based specialty coffee retailer said today it will not pursue legal action against two East Coast coffee companies that had used the name nor a Vashon Island monastery that still uses it.
News of the trademark dispute prompted a public outcry. Starbucks officials said they are listening.
"We would be foolish not to take a hard look at the trademark, and that is exactly what we are doing," said Alan Gulick, Starbucks spokesman.
Though it will continue to enforce its other trademarks on such products as Frappaccino, "In this case we believe our customers will continue to associate this special holiday blend with Starbucks. As a result, we have decided it was unnecessary to enforce our exclusive rights to the Christmas Blend name."
Gulick said Starbucks did not take any further action against Baltimore Coffee & Tea and Williamsburg Coffee & Tea beyond its original letter asking the two East Coast companies to stop using Christmas Blend as the name of their holiday coffees.
Gulick said Starbucks never sent a letter to the Monastery of the All-Merciful Savior on Vashon Island, though he had indicated in December that the company would look into the monastery's use of the Christmas Blend name.
Father Tryphon, the monastery's abbot, said he "greeted this news with great joy. It's a good thing for a large corporation to take a good look at what they are doing. . . . I think every coffee company in the nation has the right to have a Christmas Blend if they choose."
Critics of the trademark contended no company should have the right to trademark "Christmas."
However, Gulick said Starbucks had trademarked the two-word phrase "Christmas Blend." If Starbucks did not notify companies who used the trademark, it would lose its right to the trademark. It had built up brand value over the years, the company said.
"We've been marketing Christmas Blend since 1985. This is the first time the Christmas Blend trademark has raised this type of concern," said Gulick.
Todd Arnette, president of Williamsburg Coffee & Tea in Virginia, said he's glad Starbucks is putting Christmas Blend into the public domain.
However, he and his partner, Stanley Constantine, president of Baltimore Tea & Coffee, probably will not go back to using the Christmas Blend name. They changed the name of their holiday blend to Christmas Coffee after receiving a letter from an attorney for Starbucks.
Arnette said the Starbucks attorney had indicated a financial settlement might be in order for trademark infringement, but his and Constantine's attorney wrote back saying, "very politely, any kind of settlement is silly." They did not hear further from Starbucks.
Constantine said once the monastery became involved, the complexion of the controversy changed.
"I think the public reaction was, `How dare they go after a monastery,' " said Constantine.
"It was a very prudent decision on their (Starbucks') part. I think it is what they should have done from the very beginning. I am sure everyone that wants to use that name will be happy to hear the good news," Constantine said.
Starbucks will continue to use the Christmas Blend name for its coffee.