Words by Baya Ou Yang
Illustration by Justin Villar

On Friday 7 Feburary, Los Angeles residents woke up to find an overnight pop-up coffee shop with an uncanny resemblance to Starbucks Coffee. This pop-up sported the same iconic logo, colour scheme, uniforms, and interior design as the multinational chain, but with one noticeable addition: the word ‘Dumb’ in front of absolutely everything.

Dumb Starbucks at Hillhurst Avenue Mall sold everyone’s favourite Dumb Espressos and Dumb Frappucinos, with a choice of Dumb Venti, Dumb Grande or Dumb Tall sizes. Los Angelenos could even grab a copy of Dumb Nora Jones Duets with their morning cup o’ joe.

Four days later, the store was revealed to be a comedic stunt by Nathan Fielder, but not before becoming an instant commercial success. Fielder’s concept derived its success by riding the coattails of pre-existing fame. Which begs the question: from Saturday Night Live to Chewy Vuitton, how the hell are people gaining substantial profits and fame by taking the piss out of bigger, more famous things? And how are they getting away with it?

The Dumb Starbucks’ FAQ helped answer the latter question. “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 document claimed.

Equally parts confused and inspired by this loophole, it became my mission to figure out if Dumb Starbucks really could be a viable business venture. More importantly, I wanted to know if my life-long dream of opening up a Central Perk in New York City could one day come into fruition.

Disappointingly, parody law is not as simple as the Dumb Starbucks’ FAQ would lead us to believe. In the past decade, both the United States and Australia have enacted new laws that protect satirical work from copyright infringement laws. This means that Seth Rogen can straddle James Franco on a motorbike while miming Kanye West’s ‘Bound 2’ so long as everyone agrees Seth and James are being ironic. The problem is that there is no clear-cut definition of what makes a parody good enough—or bad enough—to be considered an artistic commentary on that which is being parodied. Dumb Starbucks, though clever, arguably falls short here because it’s not a commentary on Starbucks, but rather a parody on parody law itself.

Put simply, you can only use an existing trademark without permission if you are very—almost painfully—obvious about your target. And even then, it’s probably best to ask for permission first. Nathan Fielder might have got away with a boyish smirk this time, but had Starbucks wanted to be a bitch about it, they probably would have won.