Molson Coors Beverage Co. v. Anheuser-Busch Companies, LLC, No. 19-2200 (7th Cir. 2020)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

In 2019, Anheuser-Busch began to advertise that its beer, Bud Light, is made using rice, while Miller Lite and Coors Light use corn syrup as a source of sugar that yeast ferments into alcohol. Molson Coors responded by advertising that its beers taste be]er because of the difference between rice and corn syrup. In a lawsuit, Molson contended that Anheuser-Busch violated section 43 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125, by implying that a product made from corn syrup also contains corn syrup. After a remand, the district court issued an injunction.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed to the extent that the order denied Molson’s request for an injunction and reversed to the extent that the Bud Light advertising or packaging was enjoined. To the extent that the injunction prevents Anheuser-Busch from stating that Miller Lite or Coors Light “contain” corn syrup, it was vacated; Anheuser-Busch has never stated this nor said that it wants to do so but only made the true statement that “their beer is made using corn syrup and ours isn’t.”

This opinion or order relates to an opinion or order originally issued on October 18, 2019.

Download PDF
In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ Nos. 19-2200, 19-2713, 19-2782, 19-3097 & 19-3116 MOLSON COORS BEVERAGE COMPANY USA LLC, Plaintiff-Appellant, Cross-Appellee, v. ANHEUSER-BUSCH COMPANIES, LLC, Defendant-Appellee, Cross-Appellant. ____________________ Appeals from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 19-cv-218-wmc — William M. Conley, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED SEPTEMBER 23, 2019, and APRIL 28, 2020 — DECIDED MAY 1, 2020 ____________________ Before EASTERBROOK, HAMILTON, and ST. EVE, Circuit Judges. EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge. Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light are the best-selling light beers in the United States. Bud is made by Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors by Molson Coors (called MillerCoors when this case began). The beers’ producers regularly a]ack each other in print and televised campaigns. For example, Miller is touted with the 2 Nos. 19-2200 et al. slogan “Tastes Great, Less Filling”. Early in 2019 AnheuserBusch began to advertise that Bud Light is made using rice, while Miller Lite and Coors Light use corn syrup as a source of sugar that yeast ferments into alcohol. Molson Coors responded in the market and in court. In the market it advertised that its beers taste be]er because of the di erence between rice and corn syrup (which, it added, di ers from the high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten soft drinks and other consumer products). In court it contended that Anheuser-Busch violates §43 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1125, by implying that a product made from corn syrup also contains corn syrup. The district judge’s initial opinion concluded that Anheuser-Busch is free to advertise that Bud Light is made using rice while Molson Coors’s products are made using corn syrup. MillerCoors, LLC v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., 385 F. Supp. 3d 730 (W.D. Wis. 2019). The judge added, however, that Anheuser-Busch cannot say or imply anything that would cause consumers to think that its rival’s products contain corn syrup. The opinion ended with a statement that most but not all of Anheuser-Busch’s advertising is proper. Molson Coors appealed; Anheuser-Busch did not. While the appeal was pending, the district judge issued a new order, purporting to amend the existing one, forbidding Anheuser-Busch from using point-of-sale packaging with the language “no corn syrup” or an equivalent icon. 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149954 (W.D. Wis. Sept. 4, 2019). AnheuserBusch appealed from that order. Two days later the district judge modi ed the modi cation, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152559 (W.D. Wis. Sept. 6, 2019), and Anheuser-Busch appealed again. Nos. 19-2200 et al. 3 When the appeals were argued at the end of last September, only the rst of the district court’s decisions had been covered by the briefs. And the oral argument was dominated by procedural questions rather than the merits. The district court had not issued an injunction complying with Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(d)—and by modifying each decision after an appeal had been led, the district court raised some complex questions about both its jurisdiction and ours. Seeking to clear the way for a substantive decision, we remanded with instructions to issue a proper preliminary injunction that would cover all of the issues that the district court’s three separate orders had resolved. MillerCoors LLC v. AnheuserBusch Cos., 940 F.3d 922 (7th Cir. 2019). The district court issued such an order, and cross-appeals were led. After receiving a new round of briefs, we heard oral argument a second time and now can tackle the merits. The briefs take us on a tour of trademark law, covering issues both procedural (such as when a district court may presume, or nd, irreparable injury) and substantive (such as when an advertiser’s knowledge that some consumers will misunderstand truthful statements should be taken as equivalent to an intent to deceive them). Compare Mead Johnson & Co. v. AbboA Laboratories, 201 F.3d 883 (7th Cir. 2000), modi ed on denial of rehearing, 209 F.3d 1032 (7th Cir. 2000), with Eli Lilly & Co. v. Arla Foods, Inc., 893 F.3d 375 (7th Cir. 2018). We have concluded, however, that it is not necessary to pursue any of those issues, because this case is and always has been simple. The basic contention has been that the true statement “their beer is made using corn syrup and ours isn’t” wrongly implies that “their beer contains corn syrup”. Molson Coors 4 Nos. 19-2200 et al. acknowledges that Miller Lite and Coors Light are made using corn syrup, while Bud Light is not. Molson Coors also identi es corn syrup as an “ingredient” in Miller Lite and Coors Light. The ingredient list for Miller Lite is: “Water, Barley Malt, Corn Syrup (Dextrose), Yeast, Hops and Hop Extract”. See h]ps:// les/Molson %20Coors%20US%20Product%20Nutritional%20Information %203-16-20_0.pdf. The ingredient list for Coors Light is: “Water, Barley Malt, Corn Syrup (Dextrose), Yeast, Hop Extract”. Ibid. Molson Coors insists that a list of “ingredients” di ers from what the nished products “contain”. That’s possible, and the omission of alcohol from the list of ingredients could support a conclusion that Molson Coors treats that word as a synonym for “inputs”. Yet common usage equates a product’s ingredients with its constituents—indeed, some of Molson Coors’s own managers testi ed that a beer “contains” what’s on the ingredients list. At all events Anheuser-Busch has not advertised that its rival’s products “contain” corn syrup. True, it has made statements from which some consumers doubtless infer that some corn syrup avoids fermentation and makes it into the beer. Still, Molson Coors’s own statements yield the same inference. Many people infer from a list of a nished product’s “ingredients” that things on the list are in the nished product. If Anheuser-Busch has led consumers to believe this, it is hard to see why those statements can be enjoined. By choosing a word such as “ingredients” with multiple potential meanings, Molson Coors brought this problem on itself. It is enough for us to hold that it is not “false or mis- Nos. 19-2200 et al. 5 leading” (§1125(a)(1)) for a seller to say or imply, of a business rival, something that the rival says about itself. Whether that “something” is good because it improves avor (Miller and Coors’s take) or bad (Bud’s) is for consumers rather than the judiciary to decide. If Molson Coors does not like the sneering tone of Anheuser-Busch’s ads, it can mock Bud Light in return. Litigation should not be a substitute for competition in the market. The judgment is a rmed to the extent that it denies Molson Coors’s request for an injunction (and is challenged in Molson Coors’s two appeals) and reversed to the extent that the Bud Light advertising or packaging has been enjoined (and is challenged in Anheuser-Busch’s three appeals). To the extent that the injunction prevents Anheuser-Busch from stating that Miller Lite or Coors Light “contain” corn syrup, it is vacated. (Because Anheuser-Busch has never stated this, or said that it wants to do so, that aspect of the order is advisory.) The case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. The rst issue on remand will be whether any question remains for trial, or whether our decision instead wraps up the proceedings.
Primary Holding
Seventh Circuit vacates an injunction in a case involving the advertising of light beers.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.