We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Giant & the Toothpick: A Case of Corporate Overkill?

Khun Damrong of "Starbung Coffee")
There is a street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand who sells coffee.  He has one cart and sells at one location.  His income can't be more than a few dollars or tens of dollars a day, at most.  His name is Damrong Maslae, and he has become the target for a lawsuit by Starbucks, a corporation that last year generated over $18 billion in revenue.  In Thailand alone, Starbucks has over 170 outlets across the nation.  Khun Damrong's sin?  He calls his stand "Starbung Coffee" (กาแฟสตาร์บัง), and his logo is one that looks a lot like that of Starbucks.

According to stories coming out of Thailand (see here), Khun Damrong intends to fight the lawsuit and is even willing to go to jail if he loses.  He is Muslim, and he claims that the idea and design for his Starbung logo came from his religion and not from Starbucks.  The, ah, similarities between the two seem a little too close to be a coincidence, and it appears that the corporation has every right to sue for copyright infringement.  Khun Damrong is quoted in an article entitled,"'Starbung' Coffee Street Vendor Opens Up about Starbucks Copyright Dispute," as saying in defense of himself,
Sure, my logo may look like theirs, but I don’t see it as being totally the same. I haven’t copied them. My logo has its own identity. And it’s green because the color has always had a special significance for Muslims like me. I’m dejected that a huge multi-national company should choose to take this action. They are like a giant treading on a tiny toothpick—what would happen if the toothpick stood up and stabbed the sole of their foot? It might backfire and some people might turn away from Starbucks. It’s normal for me to feel tired of vending, but on top of that now I have all this trouble that just seems nonsensical to me.
 Starbucks may have a legal case, but it feels, however, like corporate overkill.  One street vendor?  If anything, this use of a Starbucks-like logo promotes Starbucks more than it harms it, and Khun Damrong certainly can't take enough business away from the corporation's outlets in Thailand to make any financial difference—assuming he even takes away any business at all, which is unlikely.  It seems petty.  One even wonders if it might not generate a backlash that will cost Starbucks some money because people sympathize with the tootpick-sized underdog and decide to boycott the giant.  For sure, Starbucks will spend more money taking Khun Damrong to court than he will cost it otherwise.

More largely, this feels like a case in point of the principle that what is legal (or illegal) and what is fair (or wrong) are not the same thing.  It is really, really hard to feel any sympathy with the big bucks corporation and not hard at all to feel a bit sorry for the little guy trying to make a tiny bit better living on the hot, hot streets of Bangkok.