Introduction

While the Supreme Court of the United States often makes significant decisions that impact our political and healthcare systems, not all cases are severe. In an upcoming Supreme Court case, Jack Daniel’s Properties Inc. will argue that one dog toy manufacturer is using humor to avoid trademark laws. And the questions in this court case are ones attorneys often argue because humorous copyright infringement occurs frequently. Here’s what you should know about the upcoming Supreme Court case between Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. v. VIP products LLC.

Discussion

VIP products LLC owns a famous dog toy website in operation for several years called mydogtoy.com. One toy sold online and in stores, caught the attention of Jack Daniels because it featured the same shape and a similar design as a Jack Daniels whiskey bottle. The trade dress was identical, replacing the brand name “Jack Daniel’s” with “Bad Spaniels.” VIP also included several instances of bathroom humor by substituting “40% ALC BY VOL” with “43% POO BY VOL” and “100% SMELLY.”

Similar to this example, VIP products LLC creates different dog toys that use the trade dress of popular company product designs while often adding a level of humor for dogs and humans. Funny as it may be, some businesses, including Jack Daniels, are not laughing. Jack Daniels believes that infringement on trademarks and trade dress by VIP products LLC can confuse consumers and diminish and infringed businesses’ brand reputation. It already occurred with VIP Products and Budweiser beer when VIP created a parody dog toy in the trade dress of a Budweiser called “Buttwiper.”

There were two main questions that the Supreme Court will weigh in on while determining the results of this case.

First, when a business creates a humorous product, what’s the likelihood that it will cause confusion between customers? Do funny products have different first amendment protection from trademark infringement claims or are they held to the same standard as other products under trademark law?

Second, whether a commercial product uses humor makes it a noncommercial product under false designations of origin law. Essentially, noncommercial use of a mark is fair use, but does that apply whenever a business uses trademarks creatively or humorously?

While a district court ruled that noncommercial trademark laws didn’t apply in this case, since VIP Product’s used a physical Jack Daniel’s bottle to designate their dog toy design, the appeals court didn’t come to the same conclusion. Instead, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit surprisingly ruled in favor of the dog toy producer. Their justification was that Jack Daniel’s parody dog toy incorporated poop humor into Jack Daniel’s trademark, making the identity noncommercial and unable to dilute the identity of the trademarked brand.

Conclusion

We might have to put a leash on this conclusion when the Supreme Court weighs in on the case since several rulings from both district and appeals courts go against previous rulings in landmark trademark cases. What will happen is anyone’s guess, but we’ll have better clarity about using a company trademark to highlight a humorous message. 

Source: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2020/03/31/18-16012.pdf

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