from the speak-freely dept
For years, we’ve talked about just how preposterous it is that various brands claim filmmakers and other content creators can’t show their logos without permission. There are even lawyers who specialize in watching movies to make sure no brands appear without a license. Seriously. And this trademark madness extends to other areas as well. A few years ago, we wrote about a crazy case, involving the University of Alabama suing an artist named Daniel Moore (a huge fan of the school’s football team) who regularly did paintings of great moments in the football team’s history. The case was slightly complicated by the fact that there had been a licensing relationship between the University and Moore at various times, but eventually that went away and the legal fight was over whether Moore could paint depictions of football games without permission. Among the arguments the University made was one that said the very uniforms the players wore were covered by trademark, and depicting them without a license (or, hell, without a registered trademark symbol) was not to be allowed. After many years of fighting through the courts, a district court in 2009 tried to split the baby by saying that Moore could create and sell paintings… but not merchandise (mugs, calendars, etc.) based on those paintings.
This week, the ruling in the appeal of that case, in the 11th Circuit, was finally handed down — and it’s a good one. The court seems to recognize the basic First Amendment issues at play and takes a pretty broad view of how the use of trademarks in artistic works should be perfectly legal. The court relies heavily on Rogers v. Grimaldi — which is more focused on publicity rights, but has a Lanham Act component as well. In the end, this ruling basically says the First Amendment issue trumps all, and the “likelihood of confusion” here is minimal as well, but takes a back seat to the First Amendment concerns:
In this case, we readily conclude that Moore’s paintings, prints, and calendars are protected under the Rogers test. The depiction of the University’s uniforms in the content of these items is artistically relevant to the expressive underlying works because the uniforms’ colors and designs are needed for a realistic portrayal of famous scenes from Alabama football history. Also there is no evidence that Moore ever marketed an unlicensed item as “endorsed” or “sponsored” by the University, or otherwise explicitly stated that such items were affiliated with the University. Moore’s paintings, prints, and calendars very clearly are embodiments of artistic expression, and are entitled to full First Amendment protection. The extent of his use of the University’s trademarks is their mere inclusion (their necessary inclusion) in the body of the image which Moore creates to memorialize and enhance a particular play or event in the University’s football history. Even if “some members of the public would draw the incorrect inference that [the University] had some involvement with [Moore’s paintings, prints, and calendars,] . . . that risk of misunderstanding, not engendered by any overt [or in this case even implicit] claim . . . is so outweighed by the interest in artistic expression as to preclude” any violation of the Lanham Act. Rogers, 875 F.2d at 1001.
That part is focused on the paintings. Unfortunately, the ruling on the merchandise side is still a little complex. The court rejects the summary judgment in favor of the University, but basically says it’s an issue that needs to go to trial, rather than be resolved by summary judgment. Even more unfortunately, the court notes that Moore has “waived” his First Amendment and fair use claims for this part of the dispute. That seems like a bad decision by Moore, but there appears to be little he can do about it at this point. Moore chose to focus on a different argument, suggesting that the fact that he holds the copyright in the paintings trumps the trademark issue — an argument the court basically tosses aside. Instead, the remaining issue is if the University effectively gave tacit approval to Moore to sell those items under the theory of “acquiescence.” That discussion has little to do with the bigger questions.
Overall, though, the first part of this ruling is quite useful in showing that the First Amendment trumps trademark in artistic works in many cases, and hopefully will be relied on widely to stop ridiculous assertions about things like trademarks showing up in movies and other artwork without getting permission.