Phyllis T. Turner-Brim


During her luncheon keynote address on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, Vice President & Assistant General Counsel of Intellectual Property and Technology for Starbucks, Inc., Phyllis T. Turner-Brim, in a conversation with AIPLA President Myra McCormack, presented a sweeping picture of her life in-house at the internationally famous brand.

Founded in Seattle, Washington in 1971, Starbucks has grown to be “one of the most valuable [trade]marks in the world,” said Turner-Brim. Therefore, the American coffee company and coffeehouse chain relies on its collection of IP lawyers from across the globe and its in-house counsel to spend much of their time protecting the brand. 

Turner-Brim pointed out that the largest portion of her work is spent monitoring and maintaining the corporation’s array of trademarks, which she adds “are filed in over 125 different countries.” While owning trademarks in more than half of the world’s countries is awe-inspiring, equally impressive is the breadth of trademarks that must be monitored; including marks like “Frappuccino,” a multitude of designs, as well as thousands of domain names. Because of the outright quantity of marks, Turner-Brim has her team apportioned to follow certain trends. “It’s fascinating working somewhere that has so much goodwill in the brand [that] so many others are trying to trade on that goodwill,” she said. Many of Starbucks’ current domestic challenges involve responding to new marijuana products infringing the brand. One particular brand, “Starbuds,” has caused enough consternation that Turner-Brim has a lawyer in her employ solely monitoring them. 

Trademarks are only a piece of Starbucks’ intellectual property portfolio, with Turner-Brim also spending time protecting the corporation’s patents. This is where her background working at Intellectual Ventures, a private company that centers on the development and licensing of intellectual property, has proven very useful. At Intellectual Ventures “we worked on all patents, all the time,” she remarked. Starbucks owns patents on many of their coffeehouse equipment, like their expresso machines, but also owns patents in various new technologies, including those that will be powered by IOT (Internet of Things). 

Copyrights play an important role as well, especially when it comes to one of Starbucks’ most valued assets, it’s smartphone app. Their app is one of the most downloaded and used apps in the world, therefore a significant amount of time is spent copyrighting, trademarking, and patenting the app and its technologies. 

During the conversation, Turner-Brim frequently stressed the global nature of her work. “In China, we open a new store every 15 hours,” she said. The Chinese market is increasingly valuable, and Starbucks was recently declared to be a “famous mark” in the country. However this success also brings its share of headaches. Starbucks latest coffeehouse venture, its “Starbucks Reserve” chain of sophisticated roasteries, opened a location in Shanghai. Within a month, there were nine other “Starbucks Reserve” locations popping up around the city, none of which were owned or licensed by Starbucks Inc. 

But ultimately, Turner-Brim expressed that her work is just as rewarding as it is challenging. She left the audience with several nuggets of Starbucks lore, explaining that the iconic name came from a famous piece of literature. “Starbuck was the name of the first mate in the novel Moby Dick” and was chosen, much like the siren in the now-famous logo, “to evoke the nautical theme of Seattle.”