Breweries love their pop-culture puns, and generally their small-batch, hoppy homages to TV shows or movies or bands exist in the world unchecked. So it’s a notable aberration that Sony this week announced a lawsuit against Auburn, California’s Knee Deep Brewing over its Breaking Bud IPA. The Hollywood Reporter says Sony is calling the Breaking Bad copying “gratuitous” and seeks not only to stop the brewery from using the name and artwork, but to recoup damages related to “trademark infringement, dilution, false designation of origin and unfair competition.”
The Breaking Bud beer name and logo are indisputable plays on Breaking Bad, and not especially subtle ones. Honestly, the brewery could have been a bit more clever in its tribute to Walter White, but that’s a separate argument. (For better examples of breweries’ use of pop-culture references, see: Pipeworks’ Hey Careful Man There’s A Beverage Here white Russian imperial stout; Stillwater’s Hopvine Bling Berliner weisse; and Tioga Sequoia’s Large Farva Double IPA.)
Sony claims in its suit that the use of the TV show’s imagery is an attempt by Knee Deep to capitalize on Breaking Bad’s success, which is hard to argue with: “the appropriation of the Breaking Bad logo design and incorporation of other design features evocative of Sony Pictures Television’s show are entirely gratuitous and undertaken solely to benefit from the enormous goodwill and immediate recognition of [Sony]’s famous Breaking Bad marks.” The brewery has, apparently, also been selling merch with the Breaking Bud design.
What’s notable is that Sony is seeking actual damages in this case; normally, these types of beer-label disputes are resolved before they ever reach that stage. In the complaint, though, Sony implies that the studio had already reached out to the brewery, who refused to stop using the reference: “Although [Sony] has sought to halt Knee Deep’s infringing conduct, Knee Deep has refused to cease using marks and indicia exclusively associated with... Breaking Bad.” This indicates to me that the studio is trying to make a point: Unless it specifically enters into a marketing or licensing agreement with the brewery—see Ommegang’s wildly successful Game of Thrones beers as an example of such a partnership—then hands off our trademarks.