Thursday, September 29, 2005
Miller Seeks Monopoly on Word ‘Lite’
By ROGER M. GRACE
The Miller Brewing Co. told competitors in 1975 to cease using the description “lite” on their labels, or they’d be sued.
After all, Miller reasoned, “lite” beer was introduced in May of 1967 by Meister Brau, Inc., and Miller bought that company’s trademarks on “lite” in 1972, just before Meister Brau went under.
Litigation came...which I’ll get to in a moment. First some background.
Meister Brau actually was not the first to use a misspelling of “light” in describing a beer. I’ve come across an ad appearing in a Wisconsin newspaper on April 29, 1966 mentioning Lithia Lite Beer. (A case of 24 12-ounce bottles cost $2.29, plus a deposit.) More significantly, other beer-makers had, through the years, referred to their brews as “light,” with the word spelled correctly.
UPI reported in June, 1967 that Rheingold and Meister Brau were both marketing a no-carbohydrate beer, though such a product, produced by another manufacturer, had failed to win public favor a few years earlier. The wire story said:
“Meister Brau, until recently known as the Peter Hand Brewery Co., introduced its ‘Lite’ beer this spring in an eight-state Midwest area, and plans to introduce it elsewhere.”
At first, the product was labeled “Meister Brau LITE,” but in 1971, the Chicago brewer changed the label to read, simply, “LITE.”
In the months that followed the advent of Meister Brau Lite there came Appleton New Lite Beer, Eagle Brew Lite Beer, and probably others.
The Associated Press reported on April 28, 1975:
“Seeking to please weight conscious beer drinkers, the Miller Brewing Co. has begun nationwide distribution of its low calorie, low carbohydrate Lite beer.
“A company spokesman said today that Miller, the nation’s fifth largest brewer had begun sales sales of the product in four test markets in July of 1973 and expanded the sales area to about 30 per cent of the nation by the end of 1974.
“Distribution has been nationwide since mid-January.”
Miller’s Lite was the first low-calorie beer to be distributed nationally.
In October, 1975, AP reported:
“After a number of false starts in the middle ’60s and early ’70s, the idea of low calorie beer is selling big.
“The chief beneficiary of this new consumer acceptance, according to the latest issue of Business Week magazine, is Miller Brewing Co., which markets low-calorie beer under the Lite Beer brand name.
“So strong has demand been, according to the magazine, that Lite Beer’s success may put Miller into a tie with Adolph Coors Co. as the nation’s fourth biggest brewer.”
Miller filed trademark infringement actions against seven competitors in 1975, seeking to enjoin the use of the word “light.” Among them was the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company.
In November, 1975, an AP dispatch from Milwaukee said:
“A dispute over low-calorie beer between two brewing industry giants, Miller and Schlitz, may come to a frothy head Monday [Nov. 3] in U.S. District Court. Miller Brewing’s ‘Lite’ beer is to be challenged at the corner liquor store by the Jos. Schlitz, Brewing Co., which plans to test-market a low calorie beer called ‘Light.’ But Miller, the nation’s fifth-largest brewer by sales, filed suit in federal court against Schlitz, ranked second in sales, charging that use of the name ‘Light’ constitutes an infringement of Miller’s trademark — ‘Lite.’ ”
Miller’s contention that “light” was an infringement on “lite” seemingly constituted a confession that each word was the equivalent of the other and thus that it didn’t gain protection based on the distinctiveness of its misspelled word.
Miller engaged in extensive discovery in the seven cases. Then, in November of 1976, it filed an action against another competitor, G. Heileman Brewing Company, Inc., which also marketed a “light” beer. Ironically, no discovery had taken place in that case when a federal judge in Wisconsin granted a preliminary injunction.
The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977 reversed, saying:
“We hold that, because ‘light’ is a generic or common descriptive word when applied to beer, neither that word nor its phonetic equivalent may be appropriated as a trademark for beer.”
In subsequent appellate decisions involving Schlitz and Falstaff, the holding in the Heileman case was applied.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company