The United States Supreme Court has weighed First Amendment rights in the balance against many things: privacy, national security, the desire to protect children from hearing a bad word on the radio, to name a few. Now the Court will need to balance them against trademark interests. The Court heard oral arguments in Jack Daniel’s Props. v. VIP Prods., No. 22-148, on March 22, 2023.
I’ve written about this case before. To summarize, it is a dispute between whiskey manufacturer Jack Daniel’s and dog-toy maker VIP Products. The dog toy in question is shaped like a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and has a label that looks like the famous whiskey label. Instead of “Jack Daniel’s,” though, the dog toy is called “Bad Spaniels.” Instead of “Old No. 7 Brand Tennessee sour mash whiskey,” the dog toy label reads, “Old No. 2 on your Tennessee carpet.”
VIP sued for a declaratory judgment to the effect that this does not amount to trademark infringement or dilution. Jack Daniel’s filed a counterclaim alleging that it does. The trial court ruled in favor of the whiskey maker, finding a likelihood of consumer confusion existed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed. The appeals court held that the dog toys came within the “noncommercial use” exception to dilution liability. Regarding the infringement claim, the court held, basically, that the First Amendment trumps private trademark interests. A petition for U.S. Supreme Court review followed.
Rogers v. Grimaldi
Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989) is a leading case on collisions of trademark and First Amendment rights. In that case, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s famous dance partner, brought suit against the makers of a movie called “Ginger and Fred.” She claimed that the title created the false impression that the movie was about her or that she sponsored, endorsed or was affiliated with it in some way. The Second Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling against her, on the basis that the title of the movie was artistic expression, protected by the First Amendment as such.
When the medium is the message
Some commentators have suggested that the balance struck in favor of the First Amendment in Rogers v. Grimaldi should only apply in cases involving traditional conveyors of expressive content, i.e., books, movies, drawings, and the like. They would say that when the product involved has a primarily non-expressive purpose (such as an object for a dog to chew), traditional trademark analysis focused on likelihood of confusion should apply sans a First Amendment override.
Does this distinction hold water, though? True, commercial speech receives a lower level of protection than artistic or political speech does, but both dog toys and movies are packaged and marketed commercially. Books, movies, music, artwork, video games, software, and many other items containing expressive content are packaged and marketed commercially. Moreover, if a banana taped to a wall is a medium of artistic expression, on what basis can we logically differentiate a case where a dog toy is used as the medium of expression?
A decision is expected in June.