Beer Glass Design Patents

Beer glasses can raise a lot of controversy among beer drinkers.   Some think a glass is a glass is a glass (or a cup), while others believe that each beer type should be poured in its own specifically designed glassKing of pop Michael Jackson could go and on about the propriety of this stein or that stange.

Boston Beer Company shares that latter appreciation.  A few years ago, the company, brewer of famous Samuel Adams and other lines, ran a TV commercial celebrating a beer glass they’d spent time and money coming up with a better glass of beer, literally.  They had designed a glass that “elevate[d] the craft beer drinking experience” with laser etching along the bottom to release bubbles from below, thin walls to regulate the beer’s temperature, an outwardly-turned lip to direct the beer to just the right spot on your tongue, and a number of other features.

That glass became the subject for a few design patents, which have now become the subject of an International Trade Commission proceeding to prevent importation into the US of the glasses.  Boston Beer Company initiated the proceeding because my local Arizona establishment San Tan Brewing Company has been using glasses that Boston Beer feels are a little too close to its own.  San Tan gets the glasses from another local company, di Sciacca (coincidentally located on Boston St.), which manufactures the glasses and imports them from China.

One problem with this suit is that design patents protect the ornamental aspects of a functional item.  The protection doesn’t extend to the functional aspects of that item.  A feature can’t be functional and ornamental at the same time.  The marketing language around the glass extols the numerous functional attributes of the glass (this ad is even titled “Function over Form”!) and thus seems to contradict the nature of the protection afforded by the design patents.  It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation, and San Tan appears to be calling Boston Beer out on it.

As an aside, I’ve always been a bit confused about Samuel Adams.  There is the regular Samuel Adams beer.  Then there is Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale, Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Samuel Adams Oktoberfest, and number of other brews, each prepended with the Samuel Adams moniker.  But call the company Samuel Adams, and Bostonians and beer drinkers are quick to correct you that it is the Boston Beer Company, not Sam Adams.  I appreciate that a trademark indicates the source – a single source – of a product, even if the mark is different from the name of the actual source.  Why do they label everything with Samuel Adams and use it just like a company name but then get upset when you refer to Boston Beer Co as Samuel Adams?!  Well, I guess I know part of the reason: because people recognize Samuel Adams after X number of years of marketing, and Boston Beer Company isn’t the most unique name a company could carry.  Please, just let me call it Samuel Adams.