Pirate Joe's is gearing up for its court battle with Trader Joe's.

By Mike Pomranz
June 01, 2017
Courtesy of Mike Hallatt

When I last spoke to Mike Hallatt in 2016, the owner of Pirate Joe’s – an unauthorized Vancouver shop that brings Trader Joe’s products across the border and resells them in Canada where the specialty grocer doesn’t operate – had pretty much accepted his fate: He was gearing up for a court battle against the retailer that he loves so much he felt compelled to spread its gospel in Canada, even against the company’s own wishes. Now, D-day is almost upon him: A trial date is set for this November, and Hallatt has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help raise money for his cause.

Earlier this week, Hallatt took to CrowdJustice, a crowdfunding platform built specifically for legal cases, asking donors to “Help Pirate Joe's fight Trader Joe's.” “Trader Joe’s has been suing us off and on for five years,” Hallatt says in a video promoting the campaign, “and it’s unbelievable to me and everyone else around here why Trader Joe’s hasn’t opened in Canada or left me alone.” That, in a nutshell, is Pirate Joe’s argument: The shop buys all of their products at full price in the US, declares them at the border, and then resells them in a country where the chain doesn’t operate, meaning Pirate Joe’s isn’t competing against Trader Joe’s on its own turf. In theory, everything Hallatt does is legal.

Defending that legal right is Hallatt’s larger mission, and one of the reasons he believes people from all walks of life may be willing to support his campaign, whether they shop at Pirate Joe’s or not. “This isn’t about healthy snacks in Vancouver,” he says in the video. “This is about defending your right to sell your stuff: your phone, your car, your camera, my [Trader Joe’s brand] peanut butter cups.”

In his campaign’s description, he gets a bit more into the nitty-gritty. “Trader Joe’s v. Pirate Joe’s is one of the most important trademark cases this year,” Hallatt writes. “I'm defending the right to re-sell branded products bought at full price. There is a centuries old legal concept commonly called the First Sale Doctrine, which forms much of the foundation upon which I conduct my business. In essence, this doctrine is what allows you to advertise the fact that you are selling a used Ford Explorer without having to get permission from Ford. It defends the right of secondary markets to exist. If I lose this case, it could create a precedent that would affect not only countless consumers, but hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs who operate in a similar way.” In a second video, his lawyer explains how he believes large companies like Trader Joe’s have tried to “chip away” at this doctrine.

From the beginning, Hallatt has said he won’t back down. “We want Trader Joe’s to get [our] message loud and clear in federal court,” the Pirate Joe’s owner proclaims. His goal is to raise at least $50,000 for legal fees, and in his campaign’s first three days, he’s off to a solid start, bringing in over $4,000 from 86 contributors. It’ll be interesting to see just how much financial support Hallatt and Pirate Joe’s are able to muster and just how far this case will continue to go.