MILLEDGEVILLE - An Atlanta-based brewer and organizers of Milledgeville's annual music festival are locked in a legal battle over who can use a single word: "Sweetwater."
SweetWater Brewing Co., founded in 1997 by a pair of college roommates, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Macon, charging that the people behind a festival in Milledgeville violated various trademark protections when they decided in 2003 to rename the city’s annual event the Sweetwater Festival.
Specifically, the brewery alleges that it has proprietary rights to the word "Sweetwater" and that the city's similarly named event "irreparably" dilutes and damages the company's brand.
"(The Sweetwater Festival has) intentionally and willfully attempted to trade upon the goodwill created by (the brewery's) famous and proprietary ... mark," the lawsuit states. "The actions of (the festival) are likely to confuse, mislead and deceive members of the public."
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Festival organizers reject the brewery's accusations, stating the claims are "baseless, capricious, unreasonable and are otherwise being pursued (by the brewery) in bad faith," in a response filed in court.
Festival chairman Frank Pendergast said the beer company is suing the event, which occurs every year during the first weekend of November, in retaliation for not being asked back after the festival's inaugural year, when it was one of 20 or so co-sponsors.
"It's upsetting you can be sued for any reason," said Pendergast, who accused the company of trying to use its corporate attorneys to "bully" a small town. "The festival has nothing to do with the brewery — and it never did."
SweetWater Brewery and its attorneys declined to comment on the case.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Heather Holder, executive director of the Milledgeville Mainstreet/Downtown Development Authority, said she came up with the idea to call the city's festival "Sweetwater" because of something she remembered from a local history class she took at Georgia College & State University.
Early 19th-century explorers talked about mixing their whiskey with water from Jarratt Spring to produce "sweet water," she explained. And given that the spring — which still flows but has since been built over by the college — is part of the reason the city was founded at its particular location, it made sense to dub the downtown festival in its honor, she said.
Sweetwater replaced the city's now-defunct Fest-of-ville, an annual event that ran for eight years, never made much money and failed to attract much attention from outsiders. When it began in 2004, Sweetwater operated with an $11,000 budget, featured 15 vendors and attracted a little under 7,000 people, Holder said.
At the time, the stage for the musical acts the crowd came to see at the first event was set up on the back of two flat-bed trailers that had been pushed together.
"Two truckers brought them down as a favor," Holder said.
Fast-forward to 2007: The festival had a budget in excess of $157,000 and attracted more than 50 vendors and 13,000 people, festival organizers said.
"We are now the biggest weekend in this county," Holder said. "Everything here stops for those two days."
And thanks to heaps of smoldering barbecue, the rechristened festival has captured national attention, too.
The extra attention came from Tennessee's Memphis in May event, the mother of all organized barbecue competitions. When it endorsed the Milledgeville festival as an official qualifier, dozens of teams started showing up to compete for points, in the hope that they might qualify for a trip to the big event in Tennessee.
Organizers estimate the new event has at least $500,000 invested in establishing the festival's name across the region and country.
Asked how the festival would cope with losing its name, Holder said she isn't sure that's an option organizers are entertaining.
"Sweetwater Festival (2008) will occur," she said. "It means too much to this community."
DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
SweetWater Brewery was involved in the festival's initial event in 2004, court documents show.
In addition to helping sponsor that inaugural event, the company was one of the event's vendors, selling beer from a truck to downtown festival-goers. According to the brewery, it did not contest the name of the festival at that time because it was associated with it and had consented to its name being used.
Organizers said the brewery was not a "high-dollar" sponsor when it participated in 2004 and that it did not partake in any conversations about the event's name, which they say existed several months before SweetWater signed on to participate in the first festival.
Holder said the brewery wasn't asked to return as a sponsor in 2005 because the organizers didn't have a good experience with the company.
"It was just a relationship that didn't suit us," she said.
The Milledgeville event filed for a federal trademark in 2006, festival organizers said. Shortly after that, it heard from SweetWater Brewery.
The company, Holder said, wanted the event to purchase a licensing agreement from the brewery, turn over creative control of the festival to the brewery and forfeit all the event's merchandising rights to the brewery.
Event planners in Milledgeville were not willing to accept those terms.
"This is a community event," Holder said. "It reflects the city of Milledgeville."
Then the lawyers became involved and matters escalated.
Pendergast, who owns a restaurant in downtown Milledgeville, said he was one of the first vendors who carried SweetWater's beer in the city. Now he's encouraging other local eateries and shops to quit selling the brewery's product and local residents to send protest letters to the company in Atlanta.
So far, he's had some success.
A handful of local restaurants — 119 Chops, Buffington's and The Brick — and at least one popular liquor store, Roc's Corkshop, have all stopped carrying SweetWater beer.
"We decided to do something about it, because we support (the festival)," said Roc Patel, who owns the Corkshop. "This was the only thing we could do. ... We sold a good bit of it until our decision was made."
Meanwhile, residents less involved with the legal wrangling are worried more about the event's future.
"People keep asking if we're going forward with it in 2008," Holder said, "and I have to tell them we are. ... This has really upset some people."