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Kelowna distillery saves Spirit Bear brand

Kelowna businessman Mike Urban won a court case Tuesday that, if lost, could have crushed his business.

The Federal Court sided with Urban in a four-year-long  trademark dispute between Urban Distilleries and the City of Terrace which filed a lawsuit alongside the Kitasoo Band Council.

"This was the best news ever," he said Monday. "I fought it, and I'm glad I did."

At issue, was the Spirit Bear brand. Urban trademarked Spirit Bear vodka in 2010, but the band and the city of Terrace challenged the right to use the name, claiming  they previously trademarked the name in 2003 and 2006. Their claim of the brand was seemingly for licensing purposes, from which they garnered royalties, although they also claimed concerns about the way Urban wanted to use the name.

“The Spirit Bear is associated with this part of B.C. and the City of Terrace wants to continue to maintain the uniqueness of its trademark,” said Terrace mayor Dave Pernarowski about the trademark infringement lawsuit filed against Urban Distilleries.

“Sometimes you have to push a little bit particularly when it’s being used on a product that isn’t the best representation for a special creature.”

The court found that both the City of Terrace and Kitasoo Band council’s official trademark for Spirit Bear were invalid, having been improperly registered.

In particular the judge found that the Spirit Bear trademarks had not been properly adopted. For their failed efforts, the City of Terrace and Kitasoo Band Council were also ordered to pay costs to Urban Distillery.

It will be a huge benefit for Urban who expressed concerns that the legal battle would sink the company. He went so far as  to ask the community to help fund his legal battle, last December.

"The community support was great, and I'm thankful for that," he said, noting that the support was mostly in spirit, not dollars.

Now, however, he can begin the work needed to expand his presence in the craft distillery market.

"I can get on with my business the way I should have previously," he said. "I had a lot of different products I put on hold and couldn't release until this was over… I didn't want to put anything into research and development or build new moulds because there was a slight chance I wouldn't win, and then I would have killed the whole company."

The judgement also reinforces Urban's belief that he was helping promote the protection of the creature.

He had named the brand as a tribute to the Spirit Bear, the official mammal of British Columbia, and as a symbol of the purity and local nature of the artisanal Spirit Bear Gin and Vodka products. The Spirit Bear, also known as the Kermode Bear, is a white, non-albino subspecies of the Black Bear found in the northwest coastal region of BC.

Urban Distilleries is now free to continue to use the Spirit Bear as part of the description of its award winning Spirit Bear Gin, Spirit Bear Vodka, Spirit Bear Espresso, Spirit Bear Vanilla, and Spirit Bear Chilies products, which are available at the distillery in Kelowna, online at www.urbandistilleries.ca and at select BC Liquor Store locations.

In a press release by the distillery, Urban's lawyers say that this was rare and highlights an oddity of Canadian trademark law, where any government entity can apply for an Official Mark without an examination as to whether and how they used the mark. While for the most part, government agencies have been self-enforcing, opportunities for abuse persist unless the law is changed.

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