In the corporate world, trademarks are imperative for brands that want to protect their image and prevent copycats from diluting their reputation. But is it worth taking a company to the highest court in the land over a silly dog toy parody?
Well, Jack Daniel’s seems to think so.
Background on the case
A company called VIP makes a range of products — including a squeaky pet toy created in roughly the same shape as a bottle of the iconic whiskey. Instead of “Jack Daniel’s,” it is called “Bad Spaniels.”
The “40% alcohol by volume” label is replaced by “43% poo.”
Based on all those differences, the company says there’s no reason for anyone to associate it with the liquor brand. VIP’s argument hinges on an exemption from patent infringement for expressive works based on a copyrighted item.
But Jack Daniel’s doesn’t think that defense holds water and has pursued the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The heart of the matter
Justices heard from both sides on Wednesday and seemed to be generally stuck between a desire to protect trademarked brands and allow for as much freedom of speech as possible.
For her part, attorney Lisa Blatt determined that VIP’s dog toy “copies Jack Daniel’s trademark and trade dress and associates its whiskey with dog poop.”
On the other hand, VIP’s lawyer Bennet Cooper insisted that “iconic brands are another kind of celebrity” and referencing them should be legal.
While Justice Samuel Alito asked whether “any reasonable person” would think Jack Daniel’s approved the toy, Elena Kagan determined that it “is a standard commercial product” that should be restrained by copyright protections.
As of this writing, there’s no indication of how the court will rule; but this goofy case could have some very serious implications.