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Comedy Central Lawyers Approve 'Dumb Starbucks' Stunt

Despite threats from Starbucks that what Nathan Fielder is doing is a trademark infringement, the network's parent company says "Dumb Starbucks" constitutes "protected free expression."

Dumb Starbucks Press Conference Nathan Fielder - P 2014
Brandon Kirby
Dumb Starbucks

Now that Comedy Central's Nathan Fielder has been revealed as the individual behind the "Dumb Starbucks" pop-up shop in Los Feliz, Calif., one might wonder whether the network's legal brass has signed off on the stunt.

A spokesperson for Comedy Central parent Viacom tells The Hollywood Reporter, "The episode relating to 'Dumb Starbucks' constitutes protected free expression. Viacom takes intellectual property rights seriously, and also recognizes the important constitutional protection afforded to expressive works characterized by social commentary."

PHOTOS: 'Dumb Starbucks': Inside the Parody Coffee Shop

The expression of support comes after a wild weekend that had observers doing the equivalent of a blind taste test.

At first, it wasn't known who was responsible for "Dumb Starbucks," which attracted long lines when it opened to serve up for free dumb-but-real beverages, or whether it would survive a legal challenge.

Starbucks didn't need much caffeine to object. The coffee giant told reporters, "They cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark."

"Dumb Starbucks" had posted a FAQ, which took the position that it was protected as a parody similar to allowing "Weird Al" Yankovic to use Michael Jackson's "Beat It."

Unfortunately, the chosen example didn't do much to quell the legal concern. Not only does Yankovic get permission to do his parodies (whether or not he needs to), but he also uses copyrighted material and not trademarks. If the real question pertains to whether "Dumb Starbucks" is misleading consumers and confusing the source of the new shop, many trademark lawyers quickly jumped to the conclusion that the new enterprise wouldn't fly.

"You can’t just take a famous logo and trade dress, call it dumb and use it to sell the very same products in competition with the company you’re making fun of," said Greenberg Glusker attorney Aaron Moss. "I question whether it’s even a legitimate parody in the first place. The people behind 'Dumb Starbucks' are not making fun of 'Starbucks' so much as they’re using its marks as a vehicle to sell their own commercial products."

STORY: Dumb Starbucks Shut Down by Health Department

But that was before Fielder stepped out of the shadows and revealed himself as the man behind the dumb lattes. Arguably, the purpose of "Dumb Starbucks" is clearer now: a comedian's stunt for a TV show.

Still, a multinational corporation has already implied that it is looking into a lawsuit, and Viacom is famous in intellectual property quarters as the company that has long pursued Google's YouTube for massive infringement. So is "Dumb Starbucks," well, a dumb idea?

From what we hear, attorneys at the House of Jon Stewart have now reviewed the prank and believe it to be a protected use.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner