Hottrix LLC v. Molson Coors Brewing Co., No. CV08-06695 (C.D. Cal. complaint filed Oct. 10, 2008)
Yes, it’s a legal battle between two programs that let you pretend to drink a beer from your iPhone. From the complaint, it appears to be an all-too-common story. The defendants (Molson Coors and its subsidiaries and agents) saw iBeer and realized that it was a clever application that would fit into a great marketing campaign and approached its designer, Steve Sheraton, for a license. The negotiations broke down, so Molson went ahead and created iPint without one. Sheraton (by way of Hottrix, his LLC) responded by suing.
The big harm, from Sheraton’s point of view, is that his $2.99 app is being undercut by a free-to-download advergame. Harm, though, doesn’t automatically equal a cognizable cause of action. After watching this video of the two, I’m skeptical of the copyright infringement claim. iPint certainly copies the functionality of iBeer, but that strikes me as uncopyrightable idea, not copyrightable expression. There are also unfair competition and trade dress claims, both based on design similarities between the two apps, but as far as I can tell, the design features are being used to identify only themselves.
Leaving the merits aside, it’s a shame the parties couldn’t work this one out. Even if Molson didn’t need a license at all (as I think it probably didn’t), Sheraton—the world’s leading expert on programming applications that let you pretend to drink stuff on your iPhone—would have been great at writing them a custom one. Almost every hour of programmer time someone put into iPint was waste from a social point of view; a license would have avoided the duplicated effort. The possibility of working out win-win deals like this is a reason that Molson’s failed licensing negotiations shouldn’t count against it, even if courts sometimes suggest that they should.