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California District Court Dismisses “Tiger King” Case, Citing First Amendment Interests

After captivating home-bound viewers earlier this year, Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” had its day in court recently when a California district judge dismissed a case brought by the publisher of Hollywood Weekly Magazine (“HW”) against the producers and distributors of the show.  See Prather Jackson v. Netflix, Inc., Case No. 2:20-cv-06354-MCS-GJS (C.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2020).  The magazine complained that Netflix had used two of its trademarks in the show: (1) the magazine’s name, and (2) “Tiger King,” a term which HW claimed that it had coined in 2013 when it published a series of articles that profiled Joseph Maldonado-Passage a/k/a Joe Exotic, who is now widely known as the Tiger King.  On Netflix’s motion to dismiss, Judge Mark C. Scarsi of the Central District of California determined that First Amendment interests in the expressive work “Tiger King” outweighed HW’s Lanham Act claims.

The dismissal adds to a growing body of case law stemming from the Second Circuit’s 1989 decision in Rogers v. Grimaldi.  In that case, actress and dancer Ginger Rogers asserted Lanham Act claims against the producers and distributors of a film entitled “Ginger and Fred”; the court considered how the Lanham Act should be construed so that it does not intrude on First Amendment values.  The Second Circuit adopted a test to determine when the Lanham Act should apply to artistic or express works—namely, when the use has “no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever,” or when it “explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”  Though the use in question before the Rogers court was the name of a celebrity in the title of a film, the Second Circuit’s test has been extended to apply when a Lanham Act claim is asserted against a use of a trademark within an expressive work. 

As the Ninth Circuit adopted the Rogers test in 2002, the California district court was obliged to apply it to HW’s four Lanham Act claims for trademark infringement of its two marks, dilution, and false designation of origin, and in doing so, rejected HW’s arguments.  Applying the first  “artistic relevance” factor, the court considered the use of term “Tiger King” as both the title of Netflix’s documentary and within scenes throughout the film.  Notably, the term was used to refer to Joe Exotic, as he himself used it on merchandise, in the name of his reality television show, and in his short-lived campaign for president, which the documentary detailed.  The series also depicted issues of the magazine, bearing HW’s name, as Joe Exotic proudly showed off the articles that dubbed him the “Tiger King.”  As artistic relevance is a low threshold—the use of the mark need only have “some relevance” to the work—the court determined that this prong was easily met, because the documentary chronicles the life and business of Joe Exotic, who is publicly known as the Tiger King.

For the second prong of the test, the court considered whether Netflix’s use of the unregistered “Tiger King” mark would make the public believe that HW was somehow behind the documentary or sponsored the work. Because the question is whether the work explicitly misleads—or as the Rogers court put it, the work contains an “explicit indication,” “overt claim,” or “explicit misstatement”—the court was not satisfied by HW’s inability to point to any statement in the series that explicitly misled about the sponsorship of the documentary.  In its complaint, HW relied upon conclusory legal statements, rather than any allegations of explicit deception that would satisfy the second prong of the Rogers test.  The court applied the same analyses on the first and second prongs for the “Tiger King” mark to the HW mark and determined that Netflix’s use of the magazine’s name in the series did not give rise to actionable Lanham Act claims.

Additionally, the court dismissed HW’s copyright infringement claim over Netflix’s depiction of certain issues of the magazine, citing the deficiencies in HW’s allegations regarding what works their cited registrations covered and which parts of the copyrights Netflix infringed.  Though Netflix had also briefed a fair use argument for this claim, the court did not reach it since it determined that HW’s copyright infringement claim failed on the face of HW’s pleading.

Although HW can assert Lanham Act claims regardless of the federal registration status of its two trademarks, it is worth noting that HW is also facing an uphill battle with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) over the registration of the “Tiger King” mark, which has become quite popular over the past year.  Notably, while HW claimed to have coined the term in 2013, it did not file for federal registration until July 2020 after the Netflix series had debuted and a host of others had already filed applications for the same mark.  HW is currently facing an office action from the USPTO, which is refusing registration on numerous grounds including the words Tiger King’s failure to function as a trademark.

The dismissal in this case is the latest decision in a robust and growing line of case law balancing First Amendment interests against Lanham Act claims.  As most courts have adopted the Rogers test (or some iteration thereof), the “Tiger King” decision provides further armaments to litigants facing Lanham Act claims for their use of a mark or other protected designation in an expressive work.  Clients clearing rights in expressive works should remember to consider the Rogers test, in addition to other commonly used doctrines like classic or nominative fair use and, when in doubt, seek legal counsel.