Court agrees to hear parody goods case

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Jack Daniel’s v. VIP Products, the “dog toy” trademark case. Cokato Copyright Attorney Thomas James explains.

In my last blog post (“MSCHF Testing the Limits of Free Speech“) I wrote about the Wavy Baby Shoes case in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, in a different case raising similar issues, the United States Supreme Court will have an opportunity to resolve a circuit split on the parody goods question. On Monday, the Court granted certiorari in Jack Daniel’s Properties v. VIP Products.

The “Bad Spaniels” Dog Toy

Jack Daniel’s Products claims trademark rights, including trade dress, in the distinctive shape and label of its whiskey product. VIP Products has made a dog toy called “Bad Spaniels.” It has a very similar shape and label. Jack Daniel’s sued VIP, asserting trademark infringement and dilution claims.

The district court ruled in favor of Jack Daniel’s, finding that the dog toy was likely to confuse consumers about the source of the product and tarnish the Jack Daniel’s brand. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals however, reversed. The dog toys, the Court ruled, are parody goods protected as expression by the First Amendment.

The Second, Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals have taken different approaches regarding the scope of First Amendment protection for parody goods. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split in the circuits.

The Trademark Dilution Revision Act

The Trademark Dilution Revision Act expressly excludes parody from dilution liability. It applies, however, only when the challenged use is “other than as a designation of source for the person’s own goods or services.” 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(3)(A)(ii). Thus, the Act covers parody advertisements or other parodic references to a product in a magazine, movie or other traditional form of artistic or literary expression, but it does not reach situations where a parody mark is used as a designation of source.

Rogers v. Grimaldi

As discussed in a previous blog post, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989), that the use of a trademark in the title of a film or other artistic work is not actionable unless “the title has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless the title explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.” Id. at 999.

In the Jack Daniel’s case, the district court held that the rule articulated in Rogers is limited to the use of a trademark in the title of a film or other artistic work. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree that the rule is so limited.

The case squarely raises the question whether and to what extent the First Amendment insulates makers and sellers of parody goods from trademark liability.

Conclusion

A decision in this case will be coming in a few months. It is difficult to predict what it will be. Many legal scholars, I am sure, will frame the issue as whether the Court will choose to extend Grimaldi to parody goods, on one hand, or to limit the case to its facts, on the other. Another possibility, however, is that the Court might choose to disapprove Grimaldi altogether. As usual, we will just have to wait and see.

Author: Thomas James

Formally known as Thomas B. James or Thomas James, Tom James is an attorney at the Law Office of Tom James in Cokato, Minnesota. Copyright, trademark, business law, nonprofit organization, appeals and appellate practice. Admitted to practice in Minnesota, the Federal and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. Also a continuing education instructor.

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