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'Dumb Starbucks' brings lines, social media buzz

Posted: February 10, 2014 2:23 p.m.
Updated: February 10, 2014 2:23 p.m.

People line up at Dumb Starbucks coffee in L.A. The store resembles a Starbucks with a green awning and mermaid logo, but a Starbucks spokesperson said the store is not affiliated with Starbucks.

 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's a caffeine-charged Hollywood whodunit: Just whose bright idea was the "Dumb Starbucks" coffee shop that popped up and started serving free drinks from the corner of an otherwise uncelebrated strip mall.

On Monday morning, a line from the store wound alongside the parking lot and up the block, with some patrons stepping out to snap pictures in front of a green awning and mermaid logo that is familiar — except that the word "Dumb" is prominently featured.

They weren't coming for gourmet fare: Their descriptions of the coffee ranged from "horrible" to "bitter," and one parent said his daughter complained that the hot chocolate was like water.

Instead, they are just coming to say they came, and to score a white paper cup with a sticker bearing the curious logo.

"It was a pretty dumb idea to come out in the cold" and wait for nearly two hours to get a coffee, joked Anthony Solis, who lives in nearby Hollywood.

One nearby merchant said someone had been selling cups for $5 each to people who didn't want to wait.

Those who know what's behind the parody aren't saying, but there was no shortage of ideas among patrons. Speculation ran from the creative (must be a project by British street artist Banksy) to commercial (must be marketing for some sort of project, probably comedic).

The store's decor is reminiscent of a real Starbucks, complete with a huge menu on which most of the drinks were prefaced by "dumb" ("dumb iced coffee," ''dumb white chocolate mocha"). One exception was the "Wuppy Duppy Latte," which the menu said would have sold for $6 had the store been charging anything. The cash register was dark, though the tip jar was bulging.

Dumb Starbucks opened Friday, and the buzz it generated grew over the weekend with a boost from posts on Twitter and Facebook.

That caught the attention of the real Starbucks.

In a statement Monday, the Seattle-based coffee giant said it has no affiliation with the Dumb Starbucks.

"While we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark," spokeswoman Laurel Harper said in an email.

She added that most trademark disputes are handled informally, suggesting the company might not need to take legal action, though Starbucks had not yet succeeded in contacting those behind Dumb Starbucks.

An email from The Associated Press to an account identified with the new store was not returned.

At the front counter, a frequently asked questions sheet said the store was shielded by "parody law."

"By adding the word 'dumb,' we are technically 'making fun' of Starbucks, which allows us to use their trademarks under a law known as 'fair use,'" the sheet said.

It continued: "In the eyes of the law, our 'coffee shop' is actually an art gallery and the 'coffee' you're buying is considered art. But that's for our lawyers to worry about."

One law professor suggested that Dumb Starbucks needed to sharpen up its legal theory.

"Fair use" can protect parodies of copyright material, but a trademark such as the logo has different protections that Dumb Starbucks may well be violating, said Mark McKenna, a trademark law expert at the University of Notre Dame.

Like others, McKenna suspects the store is a publicity stunt — but for what, he could only guess.

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