In most lines of work, the odds of ending up in Federal Court singing “Turn Down for What” in front of a 79-year-old judge as he presides over your $1.3 million lawsuit are about as slim as the odds of being extorted by a T-shirt company over the use of a made-up word. But that’s the exact situation brewery owner Danny Robinson found himself in this July.
After busting out an impromptu rap session to explain the inspiration behind his Turn Down for Wheat beer, Robinson exited the Baltimore courthouse to a collection of cameras. He joked with onlookers about being a mayoral candidate bombarded by paparazzi, but the crew was actually filming an upcoming documentary–Blood, Sweat, andBeer–that co-stars Robinson as it chronicles the struggles of two startup breweries.
One of hundreds contacted about the project, “Danny’s passion and gift of gab,” instantly intrigued documentary filmmakers Alexis Irvin and Chip Hiden. The film’s producers got more than a source of amusing sound bites, however, when the charismatic owner was sued over trademark infringement months after opening Ocean City, Maryland’s first brewery.
A career entrepreneur who’s lived in Ocean City most of his adult life, Robinson set out to fill the local craft beer void in 2011. He bought a vacated ice cream shop along the resort’s iconic boardwalk and built a nanobrewery reflecting the laidback local lifestyle, complete with a bar constructed from repurposed boardwalk planks, a beach-themed VW bus, and a patio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Location secured, Robinson’s brewery needed a name indicative of beach culture. The term ‘shorebilly’ doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but Robinson defines it as “an existence unaffected by time or authority […] signaled by sunrises over the ocean and sunsets on the bay,” a meaning that epitomizes his vision. Confident he’d found the perfect name, he registered “Shorebilly Brewing Company'” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2012, unknowingly setting himself on a chaotic course that would eventually include extortion, federal court, and the risk of financial ruin.
Shorebilly Brewing opened in the spring of 2013 to tremendous response. But as it built momentum, lawyers representing a nearby T-shirt store claimed, despite Robinson’s permission from the USPTO to use the name, that their client owned the rights to ‘shorebilly.’ Although the company hadn’t used the name in years and initially couldn’t even prove it had a trademark, its lawyers demanded Robinson pay $150,000. Eager to avoid trouble, he offered to pay the sum over 10 years and mortgage his house to do so, but his offer was rejected and he was summoned to court. He then realized he wasn’t facing an everyday lawsuit–he was becoming a victim of legal extortion.
“Too many big law firms are in the industry of suing small businesses,” says Robinson. “They have zero regard for right and wrong and don’t give a shit who owns the name. They just want to rack up billable hours.”
‘Billable hours’ is an understatement.
Since the lawsuit was filed, more than $1.3 million in legal fees have accrued between the two sides; Robinson’s made numerous court appearances; Ocean City’s first brewery has been rebranded Backshore Brewing Co.; and Blood, Sweat, and Beer has gone from developmental stages to a fully funded documentary with one hell of a backstory sure to captivate audiences as it exposes the trials and tribulations of opening a brewery.
Robinson abandoned the Shorebilly name more than a year ago, but the lawsuit and legal fees are still pending; the fate of his business, employees, and house still hang in the balance. Usually one to learn from his struggles, Robinson says there’s “no lesson in an experience like this. It’s like being mugged in the street, but a lot more expensive.”
Nevertheless, he refuses to let the threat of losing his livelihood get in the way of pursuing his goals. As he awaits the judge’s ruling, he awakes each morning focused more than ever on making great beer and doing his part to put Ocean City’s emerging beer scene on the national map.