Trademark Parodies

A post on Duets Blog got me thinking about parodies and trademarks. What is interesting about this area of law is that parodies of brands are commonplace, but on they are given only narrow exemptions within the law.

Take for example the number of gripe websites. This guy rips on Wal-Mart with his “Wal-ocaust” and “Wal-Qaeda” website. PETA has a website that uses the domain name murderking.com . In fact there is a website that just links to other gripe sites. Gripe sites are typically legal, because the trademarks are used to refer to the company and to comment on that company.

But parodies are often done without any serious criticism in mind. Walk through any mall and there are dozens of spin-offs of well known logos and brands that are misspelled for comic effect. Some are pretty clever too. A quick Google image search for “parody t-shirts” comes up with an “evil” version of the Levi’s logo, an AD/HD version of the band AC/DC’s logo, “Boring” and NASCAR, a Smurf and Simpsons version of the Soprano’s, a variety of versions of the Obama “Hope” logo and more. These parodies are commercial by nature and don’t always seem to be truly offering criticism of the trademark owner, which can cause trouble.

Even where lawsuits have successfully stopped parodies, they seem to persist. For example, a maker of a tee shirt reading “Enjoy Cocaine,” a parody of the iconic Coca-Cola design was successfully sued and ordered to stop making the tee shirts. See Coca-Cola Co. v. Gemini Rising, Inc., 346 F. Supp. 1183 (E.D.N.Y. 1972). Well over thirty years later, the same design can be found all over the internet.

Its hard to believe that many of these sales are likely to change the public’s perception of the trademark owner or that sales of tee shirts are damaging to their bottom line. Parodies occupy a large part of pop culture, but unfortunately sometimes operate in a gray area of the law.