The past few years has seen an explosion of products that are new variations on old staples. Take milk, for instance. For most of my life milk was synonymous with cow’s milk, and really that was the only milk you could get. Goat’s milk garnered the occasional mention, but only as something that you drank on a farm or out in the country where options were limited.
Now? There’s no shortage of milks available, from animals and plants and all sorts of things we were previously unaware could be made into milk. If you’re one of many who have a hard time with lactose, there’s soy, almond, rice and oat milk as options if you want to enjoy a milk-like product without the subsequent bellyache, and no shortage of options for each. But with competition comes conflict, as companies battle over branding and the consumer dollars that flow forth from that IP.
From Techdirt comes a story about oat milk makers Oatly filing a lawsuit against Glebe Farms Foods, a business in the east of England that sells PureOaty oat milk. In the suit, Oatly accuses Glebe Farms of violating both Oatly’s trademark and trade dress in the name and packaging of its PureOaty product, seeking to misappropriate elements of the Oatly brand to boost their own product.
Only...there’s not much similarity between the two products and brands. They’re both oat milks, certainly, but Oatly doesn’t have a monopoly on turning oats into milk. (Squeezing milk from oats? I’m not certain how that works.) Nor could they claim to have ownership over the word “oat” in their product name, as it’s a pretty basic descriptor for either product, or any other competing oat milk. As Geigner notes in the Techdirt story, Oatly seems to believe that the ‘-y’ affixed to the end is doing considerable work in associating the two, which is a hard claim to back up.
Even Oatly’s trade dress claims are specious. You can see the two packages side-by-side in the linked article, and other than having the same shape and size there’s little to suggest infringement. There’s a teacup on both, but given that Glebe Farms Foods is an English concern, what else is going to be on the package? And that alone hardly seems to rise to the level of what Oatly is alleging.
More likely this is a case of Oatly being a big brand with a big market share seeking to throw its weight around with smaller competitors, although it overstates it to say that a family farm selling oat milk on the side is a competitor to a brand like Oatly. But as we’ve seen time and again, that disparity hasn’t been a deterrent to other corporations that seek to drive other businesses out of the space for the simple reason that they can, and they want to.