Food

A Tiny DC Soda Company Is Taking on Monster Energy

Monster says Thunder Beast, which makes root beer in Northeast DC, is infringing on its brand.
Photo credit: Thunder Beast

Thunder Beast, a small DC root beer company, is fighting trademark violation allegations from California-based Monster Energy Corporation. About a year ago, Thunder Beast, which operates out of the TasteLab food incubator in Northeast, received a cease-and-desist letter from Monster over the use of the word “beast” in the company name.

In its letter, Monster argued customers might accidentally buy one of Thunder Beast’s bison-emblazoned beverages when they intended to buy an energy drink. Monster claims Thunder Beast infringes on its brand, which includes trademarked slogans such as “PUMP UP THE BEAST” and “UNLEASH THE ULTRA BEAST,” its petition for cancellation reads.

“I did some research and found out [Monster] is a corporate bully when it comes to small businesses and trademarks, so I hired an attorney who had dealt with them before,” says Thunder Beast founder Stephen Norberg. “For a long time we did this dance where they would suggest fairly ridiculous terms. For example, they wanted me to agree that we would never use the color green again in any capacity.”

Monster initially insisted on going to trial, until its attorneys let slip that they’d finally looked at the Thunder Beast website and realized it didn’t commit copyright infringement. The lawyers proposed a settlement, but Norberg turned it down.

“At the end of this I’d already spent so much time and money and done so much discovery work … that when they finally got around to giving me a settlement offer that was reasonable I decided to reject it,” says Norberg. “I wanted to publicly defend so that when other small businesses get harassed by Monster Energy, they will be able to research this issue and see that they have a history of doing this and that it’s possible and fairly easy for the underdog to stand up to these big corporate bullies and defeat them if you’re in the right.”

Trademarkia, an online patent- and trademark-filing service, called Monster Energy the biggest trademark bully of 2014, when it objected to 60 trademark applications by other companies. Larger firms have more marks to defend than smaller businesses, so it follows they would likely file more oppositions.

Monster Energy did not respond to a request for comment on its suit with Thunder Beast. Many of the companies who settled other cases with Monster Energy also signed nondisclosure agreements.

Still, a small-batch beverage company can be easily outmatched by a corporation that sells its products around the world. Thunder Beast is raising money for legal fees on its website, advertising their struggle with funny graphics and proclaiming, “Forget being the underdog. We’re going full #UnderThunder.”

“I really want to make it the DNA of my company to fight monsters, which is something I’m putting on all my new labels: Fight Monsters,” Norberg says. “I think that’s something that resonates with every human being, and it’s something I want to use my company to inspire people to do.”

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Julie Strupp is an editorial fellow. Before Washingtonian, she did francophone video, radio, and photography projects addressing gender-based violence in Togo, West Africa with Peace Corps. She worked at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and AllAfrica and has contributed to Mic, Center for Public Integrity, DCist, and more. Now a proud Petworth-dweller, she’s also a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who loves judo, biking, art, and keeping the powerful accountable.