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‘Dumb Starbucks’ stunt draws throngs, social media buzz

AP

It was a caffeine-charged Hollywood whodunit: Who created the “Dumb Starbucks” coffee shop that popped up and started serving free drinks from the corner of an otherwise uncelebrated California shopping center.

After several days of speculation, the news arrived Monday: The shop had been opened by a Canadian comedian bent on creating a publicity storm.

Nathan Fielder told a crowd he was pursuing the “American dream” — before acknowledging that he planned to use the parody store as part of his Comedy Central show “Nathan For You.”

For much of the weekend, a line from the store wound alongside the parking lot and up the block. They weren’t coming for gourmet fare though, with descriptions of the coffee ranging from “horrible” to “bitter.”

Dumb Starbucks opened Friday, and interest grew over the weekend with a boost from Twitter and Facebook. Once opened, Dumb Starbucks caught the attention of the real Starbucks.

“While we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark,” spokeswoman Laurel Harper said in an email.

At the front counter, a frequently asked questions sheet said the store was shielded by “parody law.” “By adding the word ‘dumb,’ we are technically ‘making fun’ of Starbucks, which allows us to use their trademarks under a law known as ‘fair use,’ ” the sheet said.

It continued: “In the eyes of the law, our ‘coffee shop’ is actually an art gallery and the ‘coffee’ you’re buying is considered art. But that’s for our lawyers to worry about.”

One law professor suggested Dumb Starbucks needed to sharpen its legal theory. “Fair use” can protect parodies of copyright material, but a trademark such as the logo has different protections that Dumb Starbucks may well be violating, said Mark McKenna, a trademark law expert at the University of Notre Dame.

Fielder, the comedian, told a news conference Monday that he didn’t need Starbucks’ permission and he was glad they had not pursued a “case they know they can’t win.”

Soon after, he said city health inspectors had arrived and told his staff that they had to stop serving drinks.