The woodchuck wars are on.
The lowly rodent, bane to many a gardener, has become a popular brand for Vermont beverage purveyors — too popular, according to one company. Now a court battle has been launched in which the makers of Woodchuck Hard Cider are claiming that Woodchuck Coffee Roasters has infringed on their trademark.
Gardeners in Vermont know that woodchucks are not cute. They are pesky, brazen, persistent chewers of cabbages, lettuces and other greenery. They force Vermonters to erect all manner of fences in their feeble attempts, usually futile, to keep the animals out of the garden. The fences have to be sunk into the ground to prevent the animals from burrowing under. Even at that, woodchucks have been seen leaping over fences with something other than balletic grace.
Woodchucks are not good for the cause of gun control. Ordinarily peace-loving Vermonters may be lured to the gun shop for the purchase of a weapon with which to save their gardens. Short of firearms, people try many varieties of guerrilla warfare: rocks thrown down the burrow (ineffective); smoke bombs thrown down the burrow (questionably effective); fires lit in burrows (questionably safe); humanitarian traps allowing the successful trapper to cart his or her prey to the neighboring town (doubtfully legal). The best remedy is for a family of foxes to move into the neighborhood.
All of which raises the question of why successful cider or coffee marketers would apply the woodchuck label in the first place. Probably it’s because most people don’t have encounters as close as the Vermont gardener does with the dumb beast.
A woodchuck is also known as a groundhog, and much is made every year of Groundhog Day. Neither the woodchuck nor the groundhog is, at close range, particularly cuddly. They have a nasty temper, and if you have ever put a trapped woodchuck in the trunk of your car, you know their smell is on the gamey side.
“Woodchuck” is a term, used either affectionately or derisively, for the local yokel, the northern variety of the American redneck, the sort who knows his apples. Maybe the cider and coffee marketers are appealing to the woodchuck in all of us, and our instinct for the real, the rural, the authentic.
The legal duel between the two companies has to do with whether the coffee guys have stolen the brand name and logo from the cider guys. This is not the place to settle that legal question, but it would seem there are some terms that cannot be owned. The Rutland phone book alone lists 42 businesses and organizations using the label “Green Mountain.” Maybe the mountains are held in common, but the rodent is unique.
The logo devised by the coffee marketers would seem to stand on shakier ground than the product’s name: a similar oval surrounding a similar woodchuck hoisted up on its hind legs, holding the product in a similar fashion in its front paws.
The news story describing this legal tussle says there have been some dealings between the two companies that did not result in an agreement. The cider company has become huge in recent years. It is based in Middlebury but markets internationally. The coffee roasters are a small local company. The cider company has suggested the coffee roasters are looking for a big payday to give up the logo and/or brand name.
The overriding question that neither company has answered in relation to its mascot is one that people have been asking for generations: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? For those who have never seen that ditty actually written out, they have Vermont Hard Cider Co. and Woodchuck Coffee Roasters to thank for the occasion.
Meanwhile, there are other mammals in the woods of Vermont more admirable, beautiful and mysterious than the woodchuck. The catamount is widely acknowledged in brand names. There are also, among the felines, the bobcat and the lynx. People have appropriated everything from the elusive thrush to the lowly salamander. The woodchuck is one among many that in this case is getting — to use the name of a local musical group — the “woodchuck’s revenge.”
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