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'Dumb Starbucks' brings lines, social media buzz

LOS ANGELES -- 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 came Monday: The shop was a Canadian comedian's publicity stunt.

Nathan Fielder told a crowd he was pursuing the “American dream” — before acknowledging that he planned to use the bit on his Comedy Central show “Nathan For You.”

Soon after, Los Angeles County health inspectors shut it down for operating without a valid permit.

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: Their descriptions of the coffee ranged from “horrible” to “bitter.”

Dumb Starbucks opened Friday, and interest grew over the weekend with a boost from posts on 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.

She added that most trademark disputes are handled informally, suggesting the company might not need to take legal action.

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.

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People wait at Dumb Starbucks coffee in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 10. The store resembles a Starbucks, with a green awning and mermaid logo, but with the word “Dumb” attached above the Starbucks sign. (AP)

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