Woof: Jack Daniels Takes Fight Over Doggy Chew Toy To The Supreme Court

Back in April, we wrote about a trademark dispute between Jack Daniels and VIP Products LLC. At issue was a doggy chew toy made as clear parody of the Jack Daniels bottle, with the branding changed to “Bad Spaniels”, along with other parody references. While Jack Daniels had initially won in court when VIP sought declaratory judgement that its use was non-infringing, upon appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th District, that decision was reversed. Key to that ruling was the court’s assessment that, due to the parody nature of the product, it was an “expressive work”, and the lower court ought to therefore have applied the Rogers test, and vacated an injunction the lower court had applied.

Accordingly, the court held that, as a threshold matter, the Rogers test needed to be applied. Under that test, a trademark infringement plaintiff must show that the defendant’s use of the mark either (1) is “not artistically relevant to the underlying work” or (2) “explicitly misleads consumers as to the source or content of the work.”  Id. at 9 (quoting Gordon, 909 F.3d at 265). The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s finding of infringement and remanded for a determination, in the first instance, of whether Jack Daniel’s can satisfy either element of the Rogers test.

But instead of proceeding along those lines, it seems that Jack Daniels instead wants to have a fight at the U.S. Supreme Court over whether a parody dog chew toy truly is expressive. The appeal takes particular umbrage at the lower court’s sense of humor.

Because the court of appeals thought [VIP Products’] notorious copying was funny, it held that the company has a First Amendment interest in confusing consumers into believing that Jack Daniel’s sponsors a dog toy spotlighting poop.

The more serious aspects of the filing focus on just where and how Fair Use can be applied in trademark law.

The Lanham Act provides that certain categories of use “shall not be actionable” as dilution. One excluded category is “[a]ny fair use . . . other than as a designation of source for the person’s own goods or services.” 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(3)(A) (emphasis added). The Act identifies parody as a permitted fair use, but it excludes the parodist from liability only so long as the parodist does not use a trademark as its own designation of source. Id. § 1125(c)(3)(A)(ii). The Ninth Circuit did not apply that exclusion here, presumably because it had no basis to reverse the district court’s conclusion that VIP Products used Jack Daniel’s trademarks as a designation of source.

Which is one hell of a presumption. What the court actually did, instead, is recognize the product as parody, deem it expressive because of that, and then indicated that the use of any trade dress or marks therefore didn’t act as a source identifier. In other words, the lower court indicated that this ought to be a fight over customer confusion rather than how closely the parody’s branding compared with the subject of that parody.

Which is exactly the correct arena for this to be fought in. Because of the clear parody nature of the product, the proper question is will the public be confused into thinking it was buying a product that has any actual association with Jack Daniels. That Jack Daniels doesn’t want to have this fight on those grounds should tell you everything you need know.