Starbucks Aims Its Legal Cannon at a Bangkok Street Vendor

Coffee giant sues the owner of Starbungs for copyright infringement. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

The sun in Bangkok doesn’t shine, it hates. High noon in the world’s hottest city hits like a trashcan lid in the face as heaving, pollution spewing traffic slaughters your breath. Money stays home, and people with just sense find shade. But men like Bung – a Thai street merchant with six children, overdue school payments, and one darkly mounting debt to a Thai loan shark – press into this withering heat, day after day. Driving a precariously strapped, bolted, taped, and jury-rigged motorcycle/café through Bangkok’s labyrinth of soot-covered souls, he sells coffee to survive. Most coffee sellers here worry about being hit by swerving taxis. Bung worries about being crushed by a lawsuit from Starbucks.

The reason this latte-hissing, multinational behemoth - sprawling through 62 sovereign lands with nearly 21,000 militantly uniform outposts - paused in the process of pulling $13.3 billion from the planet last year to sue a Thai man named Bung is, by legal standards, totally justified. But standards of humanity point to a different view of this Man vs. (coffee) Machine tale.

The battle between possibly the most famous brand in the universe and a Thai guy who owes a loan shark started after Bangkok Bung hit a bad patch in sales. Floundering in the local market – a bare-knuckle cash game filled with identically farting moto-fueled cafes – Bung decided to leverage his assets through brand identity. More precisely, he ripped Starbucks off by making a practically duplicate green sign, right down to their signature green, stars, and iconic font – but now spelling out “Starbung” – and hoisting it high atop his street café.

It worked. For the financially hammered working-class Thai, “going for a Starbucks” is something like “jaunting off to Malta.” It just isn’t done. Many millions of them live, sweat, and die without ever sipping a macchiato, so it was tough for them to pass by Bung’s rolling cafe and not smile. Rich people had Starbucks, and now poor people had Starbungs. Bung had a hit, by Thai street standards – he was clearing about $15 a day. For a minute, life was good. Well, as good as it can be when you spend 14 hours every day pouring hot coffee in the teeming streets of Bangkok.

Then came the lawyers. How Starbucks detected Starbung’s hand-drawn threat is unclear, but their hounds of law were sent bounding to Thailand in late September of last year, dutifully filing a cease-and-desist order on a third-world street peasant.

Peasant is not mere poetic employ in this charade. Thailand prides itself on being a vibrant democracy, but influence is wielded by a vastly powerful landed class where nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism prevail. “In Thailand’s most recent general election of July 3, 2011,” The Bangkok Post noted, “42 percent of MPs elected were replacing family members.” That’s probably a pleasant stat to read if you’re popping by Uncle Somchai’s to pick up the keys to the office, but the Bungs of this world face a largely lateral journey through a somewhat brutal, feudal terrain. The bright side of this is a generously slathered fudge of tolerance. Street business is largely a “whatever” zone, where the pummeling Western maze of paperwork, permits, health code ratings, fire inspections and insurance are for the most part dispensed with. If you want to buy a motorcycle and strap a coffee pot on the side and sell it for 50 cents a cup, fine. If you decide to call it Starbungs and start handing out stickers, who friggin’ cares?

Starbucks, for one, and through the international court of law, it let Starbung know just how much. Starbucks filed a petition seeking the arrest of Starbung and his younger brother, as well as financial compensation to the tune of about $10,000. This science-fiction sum for a man of Bung’s means was to be compounded with 7.5 percent interest per annum until he stopped using the logo, to be delivered in monthly payment of roughly $1,000. Oh, and don’t forget the Starbucks legal fees—those are on Bung, too.

To Starbuck’s credit, it began with that cease-and-desist order, filed in 2012. When Bung’s response didn’t exist, a duplicate was dispatched. Starbung replied this time, slightly altering his logo, then offering Starbucks a deal: He’d sell them his business for about $10,000. Declining this franchise opportunity, Starbucks proceeded to go write up the Bung. Papers were filed with international intellectual property courts, and the wheels of coffee justice were set spinning for his day in court in early November.

Till then, Starbung was in business. I found him a few days before the hearing in Bangkok’s old city, near the remains of a walled fort. Silenced cannons angled overhead as I battled through traffic, dodging roaring motorcycles for my Starbung moment. It’s hot. I’m sweating. Everyone is. Reaching the branded outlaw, I find that the little guy, in this case, is really a little guy. I order my coffee black. Bung shakes his head in surprise. Most Thais don’t understand the foreigner’s taste for bitterness. Skipping his cans of heavy, thick cream and milk, ignoring the jars of sugar, he moves fast, a man practiced at making short money in the streets. My coffee is poured into a Starbung cup, served with a Starbung sleeve. A Starbung sticker follows. I accidentally overpay. Bung wordlessly returns my bill.

The dark brew is very strong. I realize too late that I probably won’t sleep much tonight. Then I wonder how Starbung is sleeping. It seems reasonable to assume that a man being sued by one of the largest brands on the planet might miss a few Zs, but this is Thailand, and things are different here. The clash between Bung’s free-flowing Thai street sensibility and Starbucks’ rigid application of law and order is the essential, abiding contradiction of this place.

Made jittery by the late afternoon Starbung brew, my sleep that night is fitful. Black dreams flit past: Bung in shackles at the Starbucks prison while Norah Jones blasts through the PA. But the next morning, dawn brings reason and relief. Fumbling for my mobile phone, I see on social media that Bung has cut a deal: He has agreed to change the name of his business to “Stylebung Coffee-Tea.” Starbucks flexed, but did not smash: the giant remains respected, domain protected. The little guy showed heart and smarts: he won a year of publicity, becoming the only Thai street coffee hustler with international brand recognition. So maybe we’re not so messed up after all. The thought makes me smile. I look outside and see that’s it going to be another sunny, hot day in Bangkok. I think I’ll start mine with a Stylebung.

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