Good Beer Hunting

North Coast Tries to Improvise with Thelonious Monk, Estate Sues, Says "Stick to the Score"


The son of late jazz legend Thelonious Monk has filed a lawsuit against North Coast Brewing alleging the Bragg, California-based beer maker has exploited his father’s likeness to sell merchandise. According to the complaint filed on behalf of the musician’s estate, Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr., had granted the brewery permission to use his father’s name and image as it relates to the sale of Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, a North Coast product the company has been brewing for more than ten years, in exchange for the brewery’s promise to donate a portion of profits made from the beer to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The lawsuit claims Monk’s estate annulled this permission in January 2016, however, after discovering the brewery was also unlawfully using Monk’s name and image on other merchandise it sold such as beer soap and mouse pads (seriously).

For a while there, you could set your watch to brewery trademark disputes, so in one sense, this is just another tick of the proverbial clock. This is a bit different though, perhaps in a more morally consequential sense, because at stake here isn’t the mutual discovery of a hop pun. This is about a company allegedly taking liberties beyond the limited parameters of its authorization with someone’s likeness.

The company did, after all, have permission to market the beer in this way. But here’s where the trouble lies, as outlined in the lawsuit: “At no time prior to January 11, 2016 did either T.S. Monk or the Monk Estate authorize North Coast to utilize the THELONIOUS MONK name, image or likeness for the sale of merchandize such as cups, hats, hoodies, iron on patches, soap, t-shirts, tap handles, metal and neon signs, pins, playing cards, mouse pads, posters, and food products.”

As of this writing, much of the merchandise in question is currently for sale on the company’s website (for what it’s worth, it also has another page detailing its commitments to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz). So in one sense the brewery did hold to the spirit of it’s commitment in terms of proceeds, but in another sense, seems to have wildly run with the supposedly unapproved tchotchkes bearing Thelonious Monk’s revered likeness.

North Coast could not be reached for comment as of press time. But this latest dispute comes to light just a little more than a month after Scottish brewery BrewDog lost a trademark dispute levied by Elvis Presley’s estate over its grapefruit IPA, “Elvis Juice.” That case was less about the boundaries of what it could and couldn’t do using Elvis’ name, though. Rather, in that case, the Presley estate successfully argued that BrewDog had been unlawfully leveraging the rock icon’s likeness in a way that could confuse drinkers into believing the product was officially affiliated with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. As the intellectual property office wrote in its ruling then, “Whilst I accept that BrewDog may have something of a reputation, there would still be a significant number of average consumers who will not have heard of it and, consequently, the claimed lessening of confusion would not be applicable to them.”

As for North Coast, the Monk estate is seeking $75,000 in damages and, as reported by SFGate, “permission to use Monk's image would only be reinstated if and when the brewery entered into a licensing agreement with the Monk Estate.”

-Dave Eisenberg

Thelonious Monk estate sues North Coast Brewing over Brother Thelonious merchandise [SFGate]