The dog toy industry has drawn the ire of many famous brands; one of the latest examples is VIP Products’s “Bad Spaniels Silly Squeaker” dog toy, fashioned to resemble Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label Tennessee Whiskey. The toy replaced “Jack Daniel’s” with “Bad Spaniels,” along with a drawing of a guilty-looking spaniel. Instead of “Old No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey,” the toy read, “Old No. 2 on your Tennessee Carpet.” Instead of “40% ALC BY VOL (80 PROOF),” the toy read, “43% POO BY VOL” and “100% SMELLY.”
Jak Daniel’s emerged victorious before the United States District Court, District of Arizona on summary judgment and after a bench trial on its trademark infringement and trademark dilution claims. However, while the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the validity of Jack Daniel’s trade dress, it vacated and remanded the judgment on the infringement claim, and reversed the judgment on the dilution claim.
The Infringement Claim
The Ninth Circuit noted that while trademark and trade dress infringement cases turn on likelihood of confusion, if the otherwise infringing goods involve “artistic expression,” a plaintiff must also show either that the defendant’s use of the mark is either “not artistically relevant to the underlying work,” or “explicitly misleads consumers as to the source of content of the work”—otherwise known as the Rogers test, named after Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989) and adopted by the Ninth Circuit in Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, 296 F.3d 894, 900 (9th Cir. 2002).
Whether a work is expressive depends on whether the work “communicat[es] ideas” or “express[es] points of view.” The work need not be considered high art, nor do the work’s availability commercially vitiate any expressive qualities. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Bad Spaniels toy was an expressive work that conveyed humor, and it thus vacated judgment and remanded the claim to the district court to consider the Rogers test.
Jack Daniels now seeks certiorari from the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the Rogers test should be limited to the use of trademarks in the titles or contents of expressive or artistic works, not a commercial dog chew toy.
The Dilution Claim
The Ninth Circuit noted that a non-commercial use of a mark is not subject to trademark dilution claims. Then, without any in-depth discussion, the Ninth Circuit concluded that because the Bad Spaniels product was protected by the First Amendment, VIP was entitled to judgment on the dilution claims in its favor.
Jack Daniels also seeks certiorari from the Supreme Court on this issue, arguing that a commercial product’s use of humor should not render the product “noncommercial” under 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(3)(C), and thus barring a dilution by tarnishment claim.
Previously, in the Mattel case, the Ninth Circuit held that as long as a work was not purely commercial (for example, the song “Barbie Girl”), then the First Amendment defense can apply to dilution claims. Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc., 296 F.3d 894, 907 (9th Cir. 2002). However, due to the lack of analysis in the Jack Daniels opinion, it is not clear how the Ninth Circuit found the Bad Spaniels squeaker toy as not purely commercial.
Jack Daniel’s and its amici—including Campbell Soup Company, Campari America, Alcohol Beverage Industry Associations, Constellation Brands, and International Trademark Association—expressed concern in their briefing that a defendant selling a commercial product may escape any liability under the dilution laws by simply making the product humorous.
One of the more famous dog toy cases is Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, LLC, 507 F.3d 252, 263 (4th Cir. 2007), which involved a “Chewy Vuitton” dog toy. In fact, the Ninth Circuit cited to this Fourth Circuit case in supporting its own Jack Daniels opinion. However, in the Louis Vuitton case, while the dog toy’s parodic nature dominated much of the opinion, the Fourth Circuit found no likelihood of confusion in part because the products were different, and there was minimal overlap between advertising and sales channels. The Jack Daniels district court found the opposite, that likelihood of confusion existed, in part because Jack Daniels licensed its intellectual property for certain dog products.
As to the dilution by tarnishment claim in Louis Vuitton, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Louis Vuitton failed to satisfy its burden that the dog toy would harm its reputation. While reaching a similar result, the Ninth Circuit instead cited to the First Amendment and non-commerciality as its reason for reversing judgment on the dilution by tarnishment claim.
In other words, while both the Fourth Circuit and Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the dog toy producers, the appellate courts relied on different analyses.
Case Status and Opinions
The Supreme Court has yet to grant certiorari to review the case. VIP Products and its amici—Trademark Law professors, including Rebecca Tushnet of Harvard Law School—filed their briefs on December 16, 2020, and Jack Daniels filed its reply brief on December 23, 2020.
While consumers may or may not confuse a famous whiskey brand with a potty-humored dog toy, and the dog toy may or may not tarnish the whiskey brand’s reputation, it appears that the main objections from amici and commentators stem from the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, or lack thereof. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion could lead to an expansion of what constitutes “expressive” and/or “non-commercial” works, unless the Supreme Court decides to take on the issue and rule otherwise.