'Dumb Starbucks' opened by comedian forced to shut down

By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The origins of Dumb Starbucks, the seemingly rogue coffee shop that opened in the Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles over the weekend, have been revealed: Nathan Fielder of the Comedy Central show "Nathan For You" said Monday that he's the owner of the faux cafe.

It was clearly a smart way to get people wondering what it's all about.

Curiosity, reaching a boiling point on Monday, was satisfied at a news conference at the location, 1802 Hillhurst Ave.

But a short time later, the store was forced to stop serving coffee, after the Los Angeles County Health Department determined Dumb Starbucks was operating without a proper health permit.

The store's FAQ explains its rationale for why it's not in violation of trademark law despite using the well-known beverage giant's name, logo and decor, citing the "fair use" doctrine that protects works of parody:

"We are simply using their name and logo for marketing purposes," the store says. "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.'"

Starbucks and legal experts have questioned that logic.

But the biggest question among those who have seen the shop, whether in person or on social media, was who was behind the faux Starbucks and why they were doing it.

Starbucks is looking into a parody store that mocks the Seattle coffee giant with fake green and white cups and a full menu.

"Dumb Starbucks," which the company said is not affiliated with actual the Starbucks, quietly opened Friday in Los Feliz and drew lines of people looking to grab a free cup of coffee or a selfie in front of the store.

"We are evaluating next steps and while we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark," said Zack Hutson, a spokesman for the company.

A list of frequently asked questions pegs the legality of the mock store to "parody art" — an art gallery where the coffee is considered the art.

Some believed the whole thing was a TV prank, and some correctly singled out "Nathan For You," which was renewed for a second season last year.

The brainchild of Nathan Fielder, "Nathan For You" is best known for its gags that use small businesses. In one of his best-known bits, the show got a gas station owner to offer extremely low prices, as long as customers delivered a rebate form to the top of a mountain.

High-profile publicity stunts are a well-documented tradition in Los Angeles.

Last year, comedian Kurt Braunohler used money raised from a crowdfunding site to send a plane over Los Angeles to write "How do I land?" in the sky. Brendon Walsh, in 2011, put up a phony sign on a former Circuit City building in Silver Lake announcing a new Whole Foods grocery store.

Braunohler said in an interview that he liked the idea as a parody of copyright law itself.

“I think it’s great, it’s an awesome idea," he said. "It can almost be interpreted as pro-corporate protection, which is fascinating.”

Dumb Starbucks customers have waited through the long lines hoping to get a Dumb Starbucks cup to sell at online auctions. One Ebay user has listed a "venti" cup, asking for $100. There aren't any bids, as of this writing.

Starbucks has said that the fair use argument does not work in this case, but that the company is taking the parody with a sense of humor.

"We are aware of the store," said Starbucks in a statement before Monday's big reveal. "It is not affiliated with Starbucks. We are evaluating next steps and while we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark."