Who Controls Spuds MacKenzie? Dog at Center of Legal Fight

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Bud Light's 2017 Super Bowl spot, 'Ghost Spuds.'
Bud Light's 2017 Super Bowl spot, 'Ghost Spuds.'

A businessman who specializes in reviving dormant brands is trying to start a legal dogfight with Anheuser-Busch InBev over Spuds MacKenzie. But the brewer says the case doesn't have a leg to stand on.

In a civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in New York, a plaintiff called Spuds Ventures alleges the brewer did not have the right to bring Spuds back for a 2017 Bud Light Super Bowl ad because it let its trademark lapse for the party animal character.

Spuds Ventures states that the ad campaign "infringes upon the federally registered and unregistered trademarks for Spuds MacKenzie that are currently owned and used by the plaintiff for pubs and restaurant services as well as pet products, apparel and other items." Bud Light agency Wieden & Kennedy is also listed as a defendant.

But AB InBev says the complaint has no merit. "Anheuser-Busch created the Spuds MacKenzie character and used it in Bud Light commercials and promotions. The plaintiff's only trademark registration for 'Spuds MacKenzie' covers pet dietary supplements and grooming supplies," the company said in a statement. "We believe the lawsuit is without merit and intend to vigorously defend against it."

The lawsuit identifies entrepreneur Mark Thomann as being affiliated with Spuds Ventures. He leads a company called Dormitus Brands that specializes in acquiring, redeveloping and monetizing iconic brand intellectual property, according to its website. One of the brands it has resurrected is Brim Coffee, according to its website. Mr. Thomann is "now in the process of reintroducing Brim as a full-flavored coffee brand," the lawsuit against AB InBev states. With the Spuds name, Dormitus has "launched both a line of pet accessories and vitamins to help those older party animals with their aches and pains," according to the site.

But the Spuds Ventures might not have Spuds on a tight leash. The company has successfully registered the Spuds MacKenzie trademark for a range of pet products, including deodorizing preparations for pet litter boxes and dietary supplements, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database. But the firm's trademark application for Spuds for categories including bar and beer garden services has been delayed because AB InBev obtained an extension of time to oppose.

Linda Goldstein, an advertising lawyer with BakerHostetler, who is not involved in the case, said: "Trademark registrations are category specific. Unlike copyrights they don't preclude all uses and registration in the pet category would appear to be sufficiently distinct from beer such that the registration would not necessarily preclude use of the same or similar mark by a beer company."

In the lawsuit, Spuds Ventures claims that the brewer "did not seek to oppose the [bar and beer services] trademark application until after the defendants' conduct had already done irreparable harm to the plaintiff."

Bud Light brought Spuds back in ghost form for a Super Bowl ad this year after not using him since 1989. But his 2017 return was a one-time event designed only for a short-lived campaign around the game that has since ended.

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