but first, copyright?

It didn’t have to turn out this way.

The calendar next to my fridge says today is National Coffee Day. It also says today is TuesDDay, so perhaps the calendar makers at Dunkin Donuts are not to be trusted. These past few years, #coffee trending has left a bitter (no sweetener please) taste in my mouth, but I’m coming to terms with that.

Five years ago I was browsing tumblr, saw a photo of a desk that I liked, and reblogged it with a simple note about the day’s priorities.

The friend I reblogged that post from then made a post sharing my phrasing.

His isolation of the phrase inspired me to make it awful by setting it in my beloved Bodoni Poster Italic.

From there, I shared it to flickr where someone told me to put it on a mug. Having nothing against merchandising, I of course did.

From there I sort of left it in a state of benevolent neglect. I was making only a few dollars here and there from my store on Zazzle. I considered printing a batch myself, but the time, cost, and space investment of handling my own production, ordering, and distribution felt too high as I was not in the business of selling mugs for a living.

But then, something weird started happening. I noticed my image getting shared in style mood boards and on sites like weheartit and the newborn Pinterest. It was flattering to see people liked the image, but, this being the internet, there was no credit and it wasn’t selling any more mugs.

Then came the versions that were sort of mine, but not mine…

…followed by the merchandise that definitely was not mine, but was my type with a grunge filter applied.

The sites selling these seemed filled with knock-offs, and not being in the business of selling t-shirts for a living, I decided rather than complain I’d start selling my own shirts instead. Unfortunately, it was already too late.

I made a strong Cyber Monday push in November 2012, which made a blip on tumblr, but I was now seeing more versions of “but first, coffee” in the wild that weren’t mine than were. On top of that, I started seeing photographs of this mural in a coffee shop in California that opened in 2013.

Alfred Coffee

Still, not being in the business of painting murals or running coffee shops, I did and said nothing, content to make just about enough each month selling mugs to buy myself a coffee.

Now a Google Image Search for “but first, coffee” no longer even brings up my original tumblr or flickr posts, but it does include a version that someone turned pink.

I can’t claim to be the first person to have ever expressed a desire to drink coffee before doing something else. However, that applies to Alfred Coffee who appears to have applied for trademark protection in 2014. Their version is not the exact same as mine, but at a point when I’d given up the idea of trying to enforce any ownership over the idea, it felt like a kick in the gut.

Taken from http://tmsearch.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4801:4l2lw7.2.1

I am not a lawyer or an expert on copyright, and I’m not saying that they did anything wrong by applying for a trademark. I will choose to believe the fantasy that the TM that’s been painted on to the mural and added to their website is a subtle nod to my initials.

I’ve long joked that I’d be thrilled the day I walked into a Target or home goods boutique and saw a plaque with “but first, coffee” on it. Turns out, I’ve been looking in the wrong aisle.

It was another gut punch the day Etsy sent me an email featuring a mug emblazoned with a beautiful typographic “but first, coffee” illustration. I gasped the first time I saw someone on the street wearing one of these shirts. Now, I’m trying to be over it. To be honest, a lot of the versions people have made are more beautiful than my original, and that’s one of the exciting things about the internet’s natural urge to remix and repurpose.

In a somewhat comical (to me at least) turn of events, there’s also now a version that adds an “ok” in front. Does that make it a unique idea? If so, I’m trademarking the tagline “ok just do it” right here and now.

Also, if anyone who works at Dunkin Donuts wants to send me this t-shirt, I’d be forever grateful. I’m a big fan of your work.

Photo by Anna Affias

Some day I may find myself in Los Angeles, and if I do, I’ll walk into that coffee shop and Instagram the hell out of it just like everyone else, though for more personal reasons. Until that time, can I interest you a mug?


Topher McCulloch takes his tea Earl Grey, hot, his coffee black or with a splash of cream, and his iced coffee large, unsweetened, and with non-fat milk.

He wears a size Medium.