Trademark Tiff Pits Kelowna Distillery Against City of Terrace

Spirit Bear, Urban Distilleries | BCBusiness
Spirit Bear Vodka and Spirit Bear Gin.

The city and Kitasoo First Nation have launched a lawsuit over the “Spirit Bear” name

A small business owner in the Okanagan is fighting a lawsuit from the City of Terrace and the Kitasoo First Nation over the use of the “Spirit Bear” name for his line of vodka and gin.

“I trademarked Spirit Bear Vodka and I had no trouble with the trademark going through,” says Urban Distilleries owner Mike Urban.

However, the city and the Kitasoo First Nation allege that they, along with the province, trademarked the “Spirit Bear” name back in 2004. City of Terrace spokesperson Alisa Thompson also disputes Urban’s claims that he successfully trademarked his line of spirits three years ago.

“The city and the Kitasoo successfully opposed Mr. Urban’s trademark for Spirit Bear Vodka. It could be a little bit more complicated in that he applied for the trademark for the name for a company, but my understanding is that we successfully opposed it,” says Thompson.

Urban started his company in 2010 after visiting a cognac distillery in France. When he returned to Kelowna, he says that he saw an opening in the market and started the third craft distillery in B.C.

Urban is arguing his “Spirit Bear Vodka” trademark is different from the “Spirit Bear” trademark that belongs to Terrace, the Kitasoo and the province.

The spirit bear, or Kermode bear, is a rare sub-species of the North American black bear that has a white coat due to a recessive gene. The bears live in the central and north coast of B.C., with Terrace being the official city of the Kermode bear. Urban chose the name because he wanted a unique B.C. icon that reflected his 100-per-cent, B.C.-made products. He also donates partial proceeds from his spirit bear line to the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to preserve the Kermode bear’s habitat.

“In the alcohol industry the brand takes many years to take hold,” says Urban. “It’s been three years of marketing and time for the brand to develop. I don’t have the funds to start a whole new brand all over again so it’s either I win this or I close the company. It’s that dire.”

Other companies, like Spirit Bear Coffee, have used the name with the permission of the city and the Kitasoo after negotiations and agreements were reached. Thompson says that the city has tried to work with Urban Distilleries and had asked that the company transition to a new brand name for the spirit bear line.

“In the face of the refusal to rebrand our only real option was to enforce our right to the trademark, which we are doing,” says Thompson. “It is before the courts.”