On Wednesday, March 22, the Supreme Court heard a case for the dogs — and trademark law. Whiskey maker Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc., sued dog toy parody company VIP Products LLC for trademark infringement and dilution over VIP’s Bad Spaniels dog toy, which is a plush toy resembling the Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee whiskey bottle.
The dog toy substitutes the branding that is normally depicted on the Jack Daniel’s bottle with pup-themed phrases, such as 43% POO BY VOL and 100% SMELLY. Further, the “Old No. 7 Brand Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey” product name is spun into the “Old No. 2 On Your Tennessee Carpet” for a classic scatological joke.
Humorous or not, the issue involves the conflict between the Lanham Act’s grant of federal trademark rights and an individual’s right to free expression under the First Amendment. The district court found both infringement and dilution, finding that the VIP “Bad Spaniels” toy was likely to be confused with, and caused dilution by tarnishment of, Jack Daniel’s trade dress and trademarks in its well-known liquor bottles and labels. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that VIP’s dog toy was protected speech under the First Amendment.
The primary question presented before the Supreme Court is whether the Rogers test for First Amendment protection of expressive works applies to an artistic, or humorous, use of a trademark, which would trump the standard likelihood of confusion analysis. Secondly, at issue is whether VIP’s parodic use can qualify as “noncommercial” and, therefore, preclude a claim of dilution by tarnishment.
In the party’s brief preceding the oral arguments, VIP argued that this Bad Spaniels product only recreated enough elements from the famous whiskey bottle so “people would get the joke.” Further, it commented that Jack Daniel’s is lacking a “sense of humor.” Contrarily, Jack Daniel’s wrote in its petition for writ of certiorari that “VIP’s profit-motivated ‘joke’ confuses consumers by taking advantage of Jack Daniel’s hard-earned goodwill.” In essence, the case turns on whether the Bad Spaniels toy is a permissible parody, rather than a means of riding the goodwill associated with the Jack Daniel’s brand.
The parties took to the Supreme Court with their oral arguments on March 22, 2023. Jack Daniel’s, insisting that confusion is the cornerstone of trademark infringement, highlighted the consumer surveys that indicated consumers were confused by the dog toy. Further, Jack Daniel’s argued that the Bad Spaniels toy is inherently commercial because its primary purpose is to be bought and sold, subjecting it to a dilution claim.
On the other hand, VIP reinforced its stance that anything involving parody is an “easy case” and does not confuse consumers about source. In its view, poking fun at iconic brands is a form of expression, which should be protected by the First Amendment.
The justices seemed interested in narrowing the kind of confusion the Lanham Act governs. They also wrestled with whether the Rogers test should be thrown out entirely or reconfigured. Further, one of the miscellaneous concerns raised by the justices was an underlying desire for judicial efficiency and an avoidance of costly litigation.
This case could have serious implications for the commercial landscape, as demonstrated by the variety of amicus briefs filed in the case from the likes of major brands (i.e., Campbell’s, Levi Strauss, and Nike) and the Biden administration in support of Jack Daniel’s on the one hand, and by a number of law professors in support of VIP. Popular brand owners hope to protect their hard-earned reputation and the goodwill associated with their intellectual property. The advocates of free expression want to flaunt their creativity through parodies, without fear of litigation. Both sides will have to await the Supreme Court’s decision as the justices weigh the issues, and we will update you when they do.