Courtesy of yesterday's Chicago Tribune, we learn that beermaking giant Anheuser-Busch is seeking to trademark Pittsburgh's area code:
[A] search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's online database shows that on May 20, Anheuser-Busch filed applications to trademark: "704" (Charlotte, N.C.), "216" (Cleveland), "214" (Dallas), "303" (Denver), "713" (Houston), "702" (Las Vegas), "305" (Miami), "615" (Nashville, Tenn.), "215" (Philadelphia), "602" (Phoenix), "412" (Pittsburgh), "619" (San Diego), "415" (San Francisco), "314" (St. Louis) and "202" (Washington)
Sure enough, I found the trademark application online, serial number 85326213. (see for yourself here.)
What's going on here? Anheuser-Busch InBev -- a global beermaking conglomerate that makes Budweiser and a bunch of other labels -- is apparently looking to copy the success of Goose Island's 312 Urban Wheat Ale, whose name is taken from an area code used in Chicago. The beermaker is not disclosing its plans. But as a property-rights lawyer tells the Tribune, "My guess is they want to come out with sort of local-sounding beer products. People enjoy thinking that they're getting beer from a particular area."
And really, who better to capitalize on Pittsburgh's regional identity than Anheuser-Busch InBev, a firm with roots in St. Louis that is owned by Belgians? You can almost taste that local flavor already!
Of course, Anheuser-Busch bought up Rolling Rock beer several years ago, moving production to Newark. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised if someday they produce a 412 Ale ... even if we have to call long-distance to reach the brewery that makes it.
But can a company actually trademark an area code?
I called up the law firm of Beck & Thomas, which specializes in patent law (and which is located squarely in the 412 itself). Attorney Paul Beck told me such trademarks are "nothing new"; vanity phone numbers, for example, have been trademarked for years. "Anything is capable of serving as a mark," he said, providing it meets various legal requirements, many of which have to do with not causing marketplace confusion.
But if Anheuser-Busch patents "412," will we have to cut Budweiser in for a percentage when we get someone's phone number in a bar? Or as one online commentator wondered, could writing down your own number result in trademark infringement?
"You're safe, Chris," Beck replied.
Budweiser can trademark the "412" ... but only for purposes of identifying a brand of beer, he says. "You can't own a mark or a term just generally, for any purposes," he says. What's more, "You can't take it away once it's in the public domain." Other businesses could use "412" themselves, provided they weren't using it to sell beer.
No doubt that will come as a relief to these guys. Unless they were planning on going into the brewing business, of course.
But even with these trademark applications, there's plenty of opportunity out there. For one thing, Anheuser-Busch isn't trademarking the use of 724 -- the area code in use in Pittsburgh's more far-flung suburbs. Of course, given the demographics of our far-flung suburbs, you could probably only use 724 to sell pale ales. But just imagine the commercials you'd be able to make:
"724 Pale Ale -- a taste as bold as Murrysville."
Who could pass that up?
CRUCIAL UPDATE: It's just come to my attention that a 724 beer already exists ... and it is, in fact, a (imperial) pale ale. It's made by Beaver Brewing Company. Please make a note of it: I wouldn't want to be responsible for any trademark violations.