Starbucks vs. Sambucks Coffee

Starbucks, the giant chain that sells huge amounts of ridiculously expensive coffee, is picking on a little guy.

On the coast of Oregon where the Columbia River meets the Pacific, sits the small town of Astoria, population 10,000. Up here, when people want their coffee they often head to a little shop run by Sam Buck. Buck grew up here, went to the local high school and bought a tiny coffeehouse and named it Sambucks, using her name for the store.

Buck is actually her maiden name. When she married in 1993 she became Sam Lundberg but she used her maiden name for the shop because around Astoria, she says, everyone knows her by that name.

"When I bought the coffee shop, there were no Starbucks within 100 miles," she said.

You can guess what came next. When Starbucks discovered she was using the name Sambucks, they sent her a letter and told her to stop.

"I was in shock. I thought, is this real? I mean, they're attacking me?" said Buck.

She says she ignored Starbucks' cease-and-desist letter. After all -- Sam Buck was her name. No one was going to tell her she couldn't use her name. So Starbucks sued her for trademark infringement. Sambucks? Starbucks? They said people would get confused.

Would they really? I'm getting confused.

Comparing the Shops

When I go into the Starbucks by my office, it's distinctively, well, Starbucks. It's big. There's a certain color scheme that you find at many of their locations and there are lots of tables where people sit and log on to the Internet.

Sambucks doesn't look like a Starbucks. It's only 10 feet wide. It's clearly a small-town business. Sam even delivers coffee to neighboring stores that want it. Starbucks won't do that. And Sambucks sells things like beef jerky. You won't find that at Starbucks.

One Sambucks customer told us, "I just can't imagine anyone could be confused between the two, and I don't see how this possibly could be a threat to a corporation that big."

Good point. Starbucks wouldn't talk to me about this, but before I could say Give Me a Break to them, I went to a trademark lawyer and asked if this is unreasonable on Starbucks part.

"If you look into what is at stake in trademarks, it's actually not unreasonable and it probably was a wise choice for Starbucks to, to sue in this case," said Fordham University law professor Hugh Hansen.

The Sambucks case is not the first time Starbucks has fought to preserve its trademark. In 2003, Starbucks sued Haidabucks coffee in remote Canada. Last year, they sued Starbock beer and got them to limit their sales to one county in Texas. But Sambucks doesn't appear to be a threat to Starbucks. She's got one little 10-foot-wide shop. So why is Starbucks so concerned?

"If you think of a leech on an animal, one leech, if you leave that leech on, the animal won't survive," said Hansen. "If you don't take that off each time they come and you allow them to accumulate on the animal, the animal could actually become very sick or die."

Leeches?! It's about setting a precedent, he says. If they don't stop her, it's hard to stop the next one. And big money is at stake. Aspirin was once a brand name so was thermos, trampoline, cube steak, cellophane, elevator and escalator. The inventor of those products lost their valuable exclusives on those names because they fell into common use.

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