Today, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Jack Daniel’s v. VIP Products, a trademark case about the right to parody popular brands, for which Authors Alliance submitted an amicus brief, supported by the Harvard Cyberlaw clinic. In a unanimous decision, the Court vacated and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decision, overturning the decision asking the lower courts to re-hear the case with a new, albeit it very narrow, principle announced by the Court: special First Amendment review is not appropriate in cases where one brand’s trademark is used in another, even when used as a parody. In addition to the majority opinion delivered by Justice Kagan, there were two concurring opinions by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Gorsuch, each joined by other justices.
The case concerns a dog toy that parodies Jack Daniel’s famous Tennessee Whiskey bottle, using some of the familiar features from the bottle, and bearing the label “Bad Spaniels.” After discovering the dog toy, Jack Daniel’s requested that VIP cease selling the toys. VIP Products refused, then proceeded to file a trademark suit, asking for a declaratory judgment that its toy “neither infringed nor diluted Jack Daniel’s trademarks.” Jack Daniel’s then countersued to enforce its trademark, arguing that the Bad Spaniels toy infringed its trademark and diluted its brand. We became interested in the case because of its implications for creators of all sorts (beyond companies making humorous parody products).
As we explain in our amicus brief, authors rely on their ability to use popular brands in their works. For example, fiction authors might send their characters to real-life colleges and universities, set scenes where characters dine at real-life restaurant chains, and use other cultural touchstones to enrich their works and ultimately, to express themselves. While the case is about trademark, the First Amendment looms large in the background. A creator’s right to parody brands, stories, and other cultural objects is an important part of our First Amendment rights, and is particularly important for authors.
Trademark law is about protecting consumers from being confused as to the source of the goods and services they purchase. But it is important that trademark law be enforced consistent with the First Amendment and its guarantees of free expression. And importantly, trademark litigation is hugely expensive, often involving costly consumer surveys and multiple rounds of hearings and appeals. We are concerned that even the threat of litigation could create a chilling effect on authors, who might sensibly decide not to use popular brands in their works based on the possibility of being sued.
In our brief, we suggested that the Court implement a framework like the one established by the Second Circuit in Rogers v. Grimaldi, “a threshold test . . . designed to protect First Amendment interests in the trademark context.” Under Rogers, in cases of creative expressive works, trademark infringement should only come into play “where the public interest in avoiding consumer confusion outweighs the public interest in free expression.” It establishes that trademark law should only be applied where the use “has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless the [second work] explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In today’s decision, the Court held that “[w]hen an alleged infringer uses a trademark as a designation of source for the infringer’s own goods, the Rogers test does not apply.” Without directly taking a position on the viability of the Rogers test, the Court found that, in this circumstance, where it believed that VIP Products used Jack Daniel’s trademarks for “source identifiers,” the test was inapplicable. It held that the Rogers test is not appropriate when the accused infringer has used a trademark to designate the source of its own goods—in other words, has used a trademark as a trademark.” The fact that the dog toy had “expressive content” did not disturb this conclusion.
Describing Rogers as a noncommercial exclusion, the Court said that VIP’s use was commercial, as it was on a dog toy available for sale (i.e. a commercial product). Further supporting this conclusion, the Court pointed to the fact that VIP Products had registered a trademark in “Bad Spaniels.” It found that the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the “noncommercial use exception” was overly broad, noting that the Rogers case itself concerned a film, an expressive work entitled to the highest First Amendment protection, and vacating the lower court’s decision.
The Court instead directed the lower court to consider a different inquiry, whether consumers will be confused as to whether Bad Spaniels is associated with Jack Daniel’s, rather than focusing on the expressive elements of the Bad Spaniels toy. But the Court also explained that “a trademark’s expressive message—particularly a parodic one, as VIP asserts—may properly figure in assessing the likelihood of confusion.” In other words, the fact that the Bad Spaniels toy is (at least in our view) a clear parody of Jack Daniel’s may make it more likely that consumers are not confused into thinking that Jack Daniel’s is associated with the toy. In her concurrence, Justice Sotomayor underscored this point by cautioning lower courts against relying too heavily on survey evidence when deciding whether consumers are confused “in the context of parodies and potentially other uses implicating First Amendment concerns.” In so doing, Justice Sotomayor emphasized the importance of parody as a form of First Amendment expression.
The Court’s decision is quite narrow. It does not disapprove of the Rogers test in other contexts, such as when a trademark is used in an expressive work, and as such, it is unlikely to have a large impact on authors using brands and marks in their books and other creative expression. Lower courts across the country that do use the Rogers test may continue to do so under VIP Products.However, Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence does express some skepticism about the Rogers test and its applications, cautioning lower courts to handle the test with care. However, as a concurrence, this opinion has much less precedential effect than the majority’s.
All of this being said, the Court does not explain why First Amendment scrutiny should not apply in this case, but merely reiterates that Rogers as a doctrine is and has always been “cabined,” with “the Rogers test [applying] only to cases involving ‘non-trademark uses[.]’” The Court relies on that history and precedent rather than explaining the reasoning. Nor does the Court discuss the relevance of the commercial/noncommercial use distinction when it comes to the role of the First Amendment in trademark law. In our view, the Bad Spaniels toy did contain some highly expressive elements and functioned as a parody, so this omission is significant. And it may create some confusion for closer cases—at one point, Justice Kagan explains that “the likelihood-of-confusion inquiry does enough work to account for the interest in free expression,” “except, potentially, in rare situations.” We are left to wonder what those are. She further notes that the Court’s narrow decision “does not decide how far the ‘noncommercial use exclusion’ goes.” This may leave lower courts without sufficient guidance as to the reach of the noncommercial use exclusion from trademark liability and what “rare situations” merit application of the Rogers test to commercial or quasi-commercial uses.