A legal decision that simultaneously upholds the foundational tenets of free speech while quoting a dog toy’s claim to be “43% Poo by Vol” and “100% Smelly” is a welcome spot of levity in these trying and stressful times. The Ninth Circuit offered both in VIP Products v. Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc., a recent decision holding that the First Amendment shields parodic uses of trademarks and trade dress in consumer products.
Between 2007 and 2017, VIP Products LLC (“VIP”) sold dog toys called “Silly Squeakers,” which were designed to look like bottles of well-known beverages “but with dog-related twists” – in this case, “Bad Spaniels” as a play on Jack Daniel’s. The Bad Spaniels toy, introduced in 2013, resembles a Jack Daniel’s bottle, features a picture of a dog, and sports the phrase “the Old No. 2, on your Tennessee Carpet” and the above-mentioned “alcohol” content description. (A bottle of Jack Daniel’s bears the phrases “Old No. 7 Brand Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.”) VIP claimed that the purpose of its toys’ design was to comment on “the humanization of the dog in our lives” and “corporations [that] take themselves very seriously.”
Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. (“JDP”) was apparently one of those companies and did not take kindly to VIP’s canine-inspired take on its iconic brand of spirits. In 2014 JDP wrote to VIP demanding that it “cease all further sales of the Bad Spaniels toy.” In response, VIP filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement or dilution of JDP’s trademark rights, a ruling that the “Jack Daniel’s trade dress and bottle design are not entitled to trademark protection,” and cancellation of JDP’s registered bottle design. JDP counterclaimed for trademark and trade dress infringement as well as trademark dilution by tarnishment.
After dueling summary judgment motions, the district court, among other rulings, denied VIP’s First Amendment defenses and confirmed the protectability of JDP’s trade dress. A four-day bench trial on JDP’s dilution claim and likelihood of confusion resulted in a ruling in favor of JDP and a permanent injunction against sales of the Bad Spaniels toy. VIP appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a mixed ruling, affirming the protectability of JDP’s trade dress but reversing the lower court’s ruling on the First Amendment.
Ninth Circuit Decision
The appeals court, in addressing VIP’s First Amendment defense, explained that the Lanham Act’s “likelihood of confusion” standard generally “seeks to strike the appropriate balance between the First Amendment and trademark rights,” but in the context of artistic expression, a more stringent test in favor of free speech applies because likelihood of confusion “fails to account for the full weight of the public’s interest in free expression.” The Ninth Circuit explained that it had adopted, in Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, a test originally promulgated by the Second Circuit in the seminal case Rogers v. Grimaldi, which dealt with protectable names used in the titles of expressive works. That test requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that a defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s name/mark in an expressive work is either (1) “not artistically relevant to the underlying work” or (2) “explicitly misleads consumers as to the source or content of the work.” The court’s analysis focused on the threshold issue of why a dog toy is considered an expressive work, the key question being whether the work “communicat[es] ideas or express[es] points of view.”
The panel explained that expressive works are “not rendered non-expressive simply because” they are sold commercially, yet do not need to be the “expressive equivalent of Anna Karenina or Citizen Kane.” The Bad Spaniels toys were expressive works because they communicated a “humorous message” through “word play to alter the serious phrase that appears on a Jack Daniel’s bottle – ‘Old No. 7 Brand’ – with a silly message – ‘The Old No. 2.'” The juxtaposition of an “irreverent representation of the trademark with the idealized image created by the mark’s owner” rendered the Bad Spaniels toy a First Amendment-protected work conveying the message that “business and product images need not always be taken too seriously.” This message was key; the vessel of the dog toy was effectively deemed irrelevant (and, the court noted, its conclusion was consistent with a 2007 Fourth Circuit decision protecting parodic dog toys based on Louis Vuitton hand bags).
As a procedural matter, the court did not address the substance of the two-prong Rogers test because the district court had not even found that Bad Spaniels was an expressive work. The court therefore vacated the lower court’s finding of infringement and remanded for an analysis of the Rogers test.
The Ninth Circuit panel went on to reverse the trial court’s ruling that VIP had diluted JDP’s trademark because noncommercial use of a mark is not dilutive, and VIP had not engaged in purely commercial speech. Specifically, VIP had done more than simply propose a commercial transaction by creating “protected expression” even though it was selling a product. Because VIP’s humorous message was protected by the First Amendment, its use of the JDP trade dress could not have diluted JDP’s brand.
The VIP case is the most recent example of the continued expansion of the Rogers test into a more encompassing First Amendment safeguard, at least in the Ninth Circuit. In 2008, the Ninth Circuit held in E.S.S. Entertainment 2000, Inc. v. Rock Star Videos, Inc., that, in the context of video games, the Rogers test applied not only to trademark use in titles of artistic works, but also to material in the body of the works. And just two years ago, in Twentieth Century Fox Television v. Empire Distribution, Inc., the court held that Fox’s use of the name “Empire” for its hit TV show was protected by the First Amendment against claims of trademark infringement by record label Empire Distribution, opening the Rogers umbrella to cover Fox’s promotional uses of the “Empire” mark for live musical performances, cast appearances, and on consumer goods like T-shirts and champagne glasses. The VIP decision represents a predictable next step of expansion of the Rogers doctrine out of the realm of creative media properties like television and video games (for which merchandising is ancillary) to consumer goods as a distinct category of creative expression.
VIP is a clear victory for creators of expressive works, reinforcing the importance of balancing trademark rights with artistic expression and the ability of creators of even garden-variety consumer products to make a living from the fruits of that expression. Brand owners, on the other hand, will likely see the decision as a weakening of trademark protections and a blank check for content creators to profit from uses of marks outside traditional artistic content. Of course, VIP is only binding in the Ninth Circuit, but it stands to reason that other like-minded courts such as the Second Circuit (originator of the Rogers test) and the Fourth Circuit (which addressed the Louis Vuitton dog toy case mentioned above) may follow suit. While creators of expressive products may take some more comfort in their First Amendment rights, trademark proprietors should carefully assess the facts of brewing disputes, especially in these circuits, before asserting claims. And, particularly with parody products, brand owners should consider whether litigation is the best solution or if there are other compromises like disclaimers or outside-the-box business solutions.
This article was published by the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) on May 6, 2020