Ali Spagnola, who freed the phrase "power hour" from absurd trademark limbo.
“Power hour,” as anyone who has ever drunk Busch Light out of a red Solo cup knows, is a drinking game in which you take a shot of beer every minute for an hour. It’s a close cousin of the oldest drinking game of all, “sit around and consume alcohol to make life more tolerable,” and has been played by college students and high schoolers for decades. The game has become so popular that whole websites are devoted to offering videos and songs to chug along to, and in 2010, a singer-songwriter named Ali Spagnola recorded The Power Hour Album, which featured 60 one-minute tracks that power hour players can listen to while downing shot after shot of watery, domestic beer.
Then, Ali was told she had to stop playing or selling her songs. Unbeknownst to her—and practically everyone else—“Power Hour” was the registered trademark of an “entrepreneur” named Steve Roose. Unlike Ali, Roose wasn’t especially good at making quality Power Hour-related entertainment, but was very good at applying for trademarks. In response to his demand that she stop selling her album, Ali took legal action. At the end of last year she won her case, forcing Roose to give up his trademark, but it took nearly three years and $30,000 thanks to what, on her blog, she called Roose’s “asshattery.”
Roose had created a series of power hour-related videos and websites starting in 2000. He’s since pulled all of those down in the wake of losing the case, but judging by the reviews left on the Amazon page for one of his DVDs, he specialized in what were basically PowerPoint presentations of lame jokes, trivia, and a clip art-esque character named “Beer Man.” In court documents, Ali described his products as “essentially a timer displayed on a computer screen for timing the pre-existing power hour game,” while Roose responded with some ad copy written for one of his early products, the Power Hour Software Classic: “A large seconds countdown [sic] is centered in the screen. You have 60 seconds to refill your shot glass, belch and make room for the next shot. The software also keeps track of shots taken and each minute you will hear a loud burp as ‘DRINK!’ flashes on the screen.” Sounds like fun, if you’re an alcoholic who likes annoying sounds and graphics ordering you to drink.
A screenshot of one of Steve Roose's videos.
It’s unclear how exactly Roose’s trademark application for the phrase “power hour” went through—maybe the bureaucrat handling the application wasn’t much of a drinker and so wasn’t aware that what Roose was asking was the equivalent to trademarking the word “chess” or “hopscotch.” Whatever the case, as soon as his trademark was granted, Roose began sending emails to a bunch of sites that featured power hour-related content, demanding that they shut down. He sent one such email to Ali, even though they had been friendly before, and Roose had offered to sell her music through his sites.
“He did a complete 180, and told me I was infringing on his trademark,” Ali said. “Once he had the trademark, he tried to cut me off completely—while he was still selling my DVDs, by the way, in his store.” From that moment, according to Ali, Roose refused all efforts to compromise.
“I still can’t believe his actions to this date,” she said. “I thought, This is kind of ridiculous, can’t we talk this out? I figured we could work it out by talking, but he was just not having it. Zero discussion.”
Roose did not return calls or emails for this article, and as far as I can tell, hasn’t publicly said anything about the power hour legal battle. It appears he’s basically gone into hiding. Ali told me that after the case, Roose “actually emailed me trying to pretend he wasn’t the same Steve Roose and saying he’s a different guy who is a realtor, but I know it’s the same Steve, and he’s sort of embarrassed about what happened. It’s very clear things have not gone well for him, even though it hasn’t gone well for me either.”
During the court proceedings, Roose acted as his own attorney and proved himself to be about as capable a lawyer as Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He claimed, bizarrely, that although people played similar drinking games in the past, no one was calling the game where you take a shot of beer every minute for an hour “power hour” until he came up with the idea. (This contradicted his own website, which said the game power hour “has existed for centuries.”) As proof of his ownership, he told the court, “My Power Hour page has 942 fans where the association to the game outside my company only has 750 likes.” It seems the only thing Roose was successful at was delaying the proceedings by taking as long as possible to respond to Ali’s lawyer’s requests and withholding documents.
“That resulted in more charges to me, to get my lawyer to force the court to get him to give up information,” Ali said. “He just kept draining my money throughout all of this… The whole thing comes off as very malicious. I think he thought he was being a good businessman.”
During the legal battle, Ali received support not just from other power hour enthusiasts who had been harassed by Roose, but a broad coalition of what I guess I would call “geeks.” Gizmodo wanted to marry her, and Reddit gave her lots of attention. (It helps that she speaks fluent Internetese—the web loves quirkily-edited videos.) And though she’s out 30 grand as a result of the legal battle, she’s gotten a lot of positive publicity in the process.
“I’ve gotten a steady stream of concert requests,” she said. “There are people who are coming to my online power hours, where I’ll perform a podcast livestreaming show. And that’s growing in popularity. I’m getting more sales in the Indiegogo campaign that I’m running right now, which is going to help with my 2013 tour of playing power hours all over the US.”
Thanks to Ali, you can consume as many shots of beer in as many minutes as you want while listening to whatever kind of music you want without paying some guy you’ve never heard of named Steve Roose any money. And isn’t that what America is all about?