Canadian caf? bucks corporate lawsuit

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MASSET, British Columbia - Some strange brew is cooking in a caf? in an isolated British Columbia village and it's more than just the java being served.

Haida Bucks restaurant finds itself in some legal hot water after raising the ire of Starbucks, the multi-national, multi-billion dollar coffee conglomerate. In a document served to the eatery in Masset, population 1,200, Starbucks seems a might perturbed about another restaurant, particularly one doing a significant percentage of its business with the roasted bean, infringing upon its trademark and good name.

One of the four co-owners of Haida Bucks is Darin Swanson, who has found the unexpected and unsolicited attention heaped upon his establishment quite amusing, notwithstanding the potential jurisprudence. What Swanson can't understand is why Starbucks is chasing after such a little fish when he believes it's quite apparent that Haida Bucks has neither breached the larger coffeehouse's trademark nor is capitalizing on the name.

"They never did their homework," Swanson said about whether Starbucks knew how large, or in this matter, small, their opponent was. "They probably saw our name on the Internet, called their lawyers and said 'Serve these guys.'"

From a letter received three months ago, Starbucks requested Swanson's restaurant to alter its moniker within a two-week period without a threat of any financial lawsuit. The deadline has since lapsed, but when Swanson and partner Willis Parnell first looked at the letter and brushed aside any jokes, they realized they required legal advice.

"This is a serious threat that we've got a corporation bullying us to change our name," said Swanson.

Innocently the partners, who purchased the land and constructed the building four years ago, created the name because they're all Haida and the local slang for men is buck. Swanson couldn't have known with whom he was tangling with because before owning the restaurant he never drank coffee and only recently has visited his challenger's operations.

Not that Swanson has a frequent opportunity to enter a Starbucks. The nearest franchise is a two-hour flight to Vancouver or a trip to Prince George, encompassing a 10-hour drive and a six-hour ferry ride. He wasn't sure if there was a Starbucks in the Alaskan Panhandle, but if there was, that location too would take a multi-day effort to reach.

"Because of our location, business is dictated by the size of our town," Swanson noted about how there's no way Haida Bucks can leech off Starbucks' reputation. "If we were within a half-hour of Vancouver that would be different, but you see what it's like to get here."

Though not specified, Starbucks likely found out about Haida Bucks after obtaining the purchasing orders from Seattle's Best Coffee, a company that provided for the 36-seat Masset outlet before being bought out by Starbucks earlier this year. In a letter dated March 4, 2003, prepared by the lawyers representing Starbucks in Canada, the five-paragraph correspondence spells out the corporation's trademark rights and requests the name change of Haida Bucks. Below are two sentences from the letter sent by the firm Bull, Housser & Tupper.

"Your unfortunate choice of the suffix "BUCKS" results in a clear association with our client's trade-mark STARBUCKS. ... They are only concerned about your use of the suffix "BUCKS" and ask that you respect its rights in the operation of your business by removing reference to that element from your restaurant."

Although overhead the front entrance to Haida Bucks is a circular sign, it too can easily be distinguished from Starbucks. First the colors are red, black and brown, a far cry from the Starbucks' green and white and the mermaid has nothing on the Masset logo.

"These are four hats representing the four partners. We wanted the southeast wind and the design is the directions of north, south, east and west coming together as one," referred Swanson to the sign's artistic interpretation and to the coastal surroundings of the quaint village atop the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands).

Should there still be any confusion, unlike the larger Starbucks which only serves drinks and light pastries, the Masset restaurant offers finer dining on weekends. While the upstairs seating area is presently under renovation, the floor space is crammed with black and white t-shirts, showing the Haida Bucks' logo, sprawled out ready to be stuffed into envelopes for mailing, the present means of raising money for legal fees.

This David-versus-Goliath legal proceedings has attracted worldwide support for Haida Bucks, even from those who don't know where Masset, British Columbia is. Swanson pulls out a file full of e-mail letters of encouragement and discusses the generosity of checks from strangers including the donation of the Web site by a West Virginia company detailing the sabre-rattling. Www.haidabuckscafe.com had more than 160,000 hits in the first month, numbers that stagger Swanson.

Since the original two-week deadline has passed, Starbucks has modified their offer by "allowing" Haida Bucks to keep their name until the end of the year and is prepared to pay some partial costs toward any changes. Swanson and his partners have countered by demanding the cease-and-desist action be retracted, $2,000 for legal costs spent and an apology. No response has been received from Haida Bucks' offer.

Swanson can talk candidly because he knows any further action, which has not happened, could not possibly become financial. Even if Haida Bucks should lose, which Swanson almost assuredly says that's unlikely, he's not afraid.

"We'll just change our name (but) they're not going to get water out of a rock," Swanson said with a laugh.

He made this remark so flippantly because Haida Bucks shuts down for the winter months because there isn't enough traffic to even pay the wages of its four staff members.