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May 20, 2013

Maker of Woodchuck Cider Sues South Burlington Coffee Roaster

Woodhuck_logosOnce upon a time, Vermont copyright infringement cases tended to originate with out-of-state conglomerates — think Chick-fil-A versus Eat More Kale or Monster Energy Drink versus Rock Art Brewery.

Maybe it was inevitable that a Vermont brand would get big enough to feel the need to defend its trade name against its smaller, in-state brethren. So it is with Vermont Hard Cider Company, maker of Woodchuck Hard Cider, which last week filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking monetary damages against the owners of South Burlington’s Woodchuck Coffee Roasters.

In the complaint, Vermont Hard Cider — which is registered in Delaware but has its headquarters in Middlebury — is described as having invested a “substantial” amount of money in building the brand name it has held since 1991, and trademarked in 2001. Not only do the name and furry rodent — holding an apple — adorn its cider bottles, but they appear on licensed products as diverse as key chains, playing cards, lip balm, umbrellas, suspenders and even “hydropacks,” according to the complaint — a testament to just how vertical brands can be these days.

Brothers Tony and Jim Basiliere founded Woodchuck Coffee Roasters in January 2011. “Both Jim and I are fifth-generation Vermonters,” Tony explains. “When I was a kid, [the term woodchuck] was a slight, but we’ve now embraced it. It reflects our values as true Vermonters.”

Tony Basiliere says he did a thorough search for other coffee companies that shared the name; when the Vermont Secretary of State approved it, he assumed he and his brother were in the clear, and they began using their image of a woodchuck sitting on its haunches and holding a cup of steaming joe.

Fifteen months later, he received a call from VHC CEO Bret Williams requesting a chat about the brand conflict. "He offered to help us out with the cost of changing the name,” Basiliere says.

At first, the Basilieres — who had already invested tens of thousands in their growing company — held their ground. By that September, though, Tony Basiliere says he grew tired of the requests and decided to "cave," as he puts it. After a few months of negotiations, Basiliere didn't hear back on one of his counteroffers, he says, and hoped it was the end of the matter. "I thought, they're a huge, successful company with a lot of fish to fry. Maybe they're just going to forget about me."

That theory unraveled last week when a “very nice” sheriff showed up at Basiliere's door with the official complaint.

Nate Formalarie, communications manager for VHC, declined to discuss the complaint’s details. “We wish it didn’t come to this, but we’re trying to do the right thing,” he says. “We tried to work with them over the course of a hefty amount of time.”

Just two weeks ago, Woodchuck Cider broke ground on a 100,000 square-foot, $30 million cidery in Middlebury, about a mile from its current headquarters, that is expected to create 15 new jobs when it opens next spring. The expansion is an outgrowth of Vermont Hard Cider's $300 million sale to Ireland's C&C Group last fall. The complaint lays out even more plans for expansion: "Woodchuck plans to expand its use of WOODCHUCK MARKS to soaps, cheese, apple butter, maple syrup, rum and whiskey."

Woodchuck Coffee Roasters products are for sale in a handful of local markets such as Healthy Living and City Market. While Tony Basiliere might have been willing to back down earlier this year, he no longer sees concession as an option. “I’m going to fight it in principle,” he says, wondering aloud how an animal as ubiquitous as a woodchuck can be trademarked. "I have the utmost respect for the company, and I can see the similarity. My feeling is that, if they don't want to have any dilution of the brand, they should have thought of that in the beginning and chosen something different."

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