Adam Milne's brewpub is fighting City Hall. And as of today, Milne is winning.

The issue is trademark rights, and Old Town Brewing prominently uses one of Portland's most popular images.

The white sign hanging above the front door of Old Town Brewing's taproom on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard features the silhouette of a leaping buck. Behind the bar, a herd of white stags bound across eight wooden beer tap handles. The glasses, the coasters, and every bottle of Pilsner brewed in-house are festooned with the jumping deer—the same one that glows on the iconic "Portland Oregon" sign.

For seven years, Portland City Hall has owned that neon sign at the west end of the Burnside Bridge. Shortly after its purchase, the City Attorney's Office set out to obtain federal trademarks for the image.

Trademarks give the owner the right to control use of the image and to license that use to others. For the past seven years, Portland has aggressively sought payment from anyone who used the image for marketing, from Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to Christmas ornament vendors on Etsy. The city collected $39,330 in licensing fees in fiscal year 2016.

But in fact, the city owns only bits and pieces of the federal trademark. Although the city now has a federal trademark for items like T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, it still doesn't have one for beer, wine and alcohol.

That's because the trademark for the category that covers beer, wine and alcohol belongs to Old Town Brewing.

Old Town Brewing’s taproom on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. (Hunter Murphy)
Old Town Brewing’s taproom on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. (Hunter Murphy)

In the fall of 2016, the city attempted to expand its trademark into the territory of beer. This September, a year later, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the city's request, citing the similarity to Old Town Brewing's trademark, issued in 2012.

"Getting the trademark was a very long, challenging process," Milne says. "We've built a brand we're so proud of."

Bryant Enge, director of the city's Bureau of Internal Business Services, says he's not discouraged by the patent office's rejection of Portland's trademark application. "Initial trademark application rejections are not uncommon," Enge says. "We're confident that the trademark will be approved."

Why would he want the trademark? To partner with national brewers who want to use the image for marketing purposes. Such an agreement could lead to lucrative licensing fees for ad campaigns—but Old Town Brewing stands in the way.

Old Town Brewing. (Hunter Murphy)
Old Town Brewing. (Hunter Murphy)

The city bought the "Portland Oregon" sign in 2010 to save it from being unplugged and torn down.

The city set out to pay for the costs of maintaining the sign by obtaining federal trademarks for the image—but WW has learned it began selling licenses even before any federal trademark was approved.

The city can legally sell licenses, but its ability to enforce them is limited without a federal trademark. As soon as city attorneys started demanding license fees between $100 and $20,000 from businesses and artists who used the image of the sign in their products, people started to push back.

When city attorneys sent cease-and-desist letters to a number of Etsy artists who were using the image in their work, the creative community balked. Local company Vintage Roadside sued the city for trying to enforce a licensing fee for prints of photos that were taken before the city bought the sign. The case settled out of court, and Vintage Roadside did not pay a licensing fee.

"We understand what the city is trying to do; it's a noble cause," says Kohel Haver, the trademark lawyer who represented Vintage Roadside. "But I don't think they're doing it correctly. They're going after the little guy, and that's just a shame. We shouldn't be paying our city attorneys to go after that stuff."

Not every business owner feels the same way. Nathan Verhoeven, who sells graphic T-shirts at Portland Saturday Market, says he's happy to pay the city's fees. He paid about $1,500 for a five-year license to use the image.

"The fees feel like they're fair," he says. "The shirts do really well. I don't feel like it's a burden."

Old Town Brewing’s pilsner is decorated with the white stag. (Hunter Murphy)
Old Town Brewing’s pilsner is decorated with the white stag. (Hunter Murphy)

Curiously, while the federal patent office ruled that Old Town Brewing's claim to the White Stag image is "incontestable," the city continues to negotiate with big brewers over licensing rights.

Perhaps the largest conflict over the licensing of the sign involved Pabst Brewing Company. In 2015, Pabst hosted a music festival that it advertised with an image the city claimed was "confusingly similar" to the sign: an outline of the state with a unicorn jumping from the top and the words "Project Pabst" where "Old Town" appears on the original sign.

In the end, Pabst paid the city $30,000 to use the image in its promotions, settling a lawsuit the city filed against the brewer. (Disclosure: WW has partnered with Pabst to run music festivals.)

The Pabst deal with the city doesn't bother Milne—a unicorn isn't going to be confused with a stag, he says. But the local beer makers at Old Town Brewing fear the city will try to license the image of the stag to large, corporate alcohol sellers.

Old Town Brewing tap handles. (Hunter Murphy)
Old Town Brewing tap handles. (Hunter Murphy)

An Anheuser-Busch ad campaign in 2014 included coasters and glasses with the sign featured prominently. Milne says the image was too similar to his brand's logo. He sent a cease-and-desist letter to the beer giant, and the stag disappeared from the macrobrewer's coasters and glasses.

City officials say they didn't license the image of the sign to Anheuser-Busch for the marketing campaign. But this year, it granted a $20,000 license to Widmer Brothers, a Portland-based brewery owned by a national company, Craft Brew Alliance. Anheuser-Busch holds a 32.2 percent stake in CBA. Widmer uses the "Portland Oregon" sign on bottles of its PDX Pils, but it leaves off the leaping stag.

Milne says Old Town Brewing will keep on locking horns over the stag.

"They feel like they should be able to license to whoever they want," Milne says. "We feel that licensing trademarks to multinational corporations is not really a Portland value. We're very prideful of our local food, our local outdoors and—especially in Portland—our local beer."

Old Town Brewing founders. (Hunter Murphy)
Old Town Brewing founders. (Hunter Murphy)