On June 8, 2023, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Jack Daniel’s in the case of Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. v. VIP Products LLC, 599 U.S. ___ (2023). The case arose from Jack Daniel’s complaint about VIP’s sale of a dog toy designed to resemble a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. As shown below, there is no question that the VIP bottle is designed to resemble the Jack Daniel’s bottle, although several of the notable components are modified for comedic purposes. For example, “Jack Daniel’s” is replaced with “Bad Spaniels”, and references to Old No. 7, is replaced with a numeric nod to dog excrement.
Jack Daniel’s sent a cease and desist letter to VIP shortly after the product launched. VIP filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment that Bad Spaniels neither infringed nor diluted the Jack Daniel’s brand. Jack Daniel’s countersued, and the District Court initially ruled in favor of Jack Daniel’s, finding both infringement and dilution by tarnishment.
The 9th Circuit reversed on appeal. Finding that the design of the Bad Spaniels bottle was an “expressive work” parodying the elements of the Jack Daniel’s bottle for non-commercial purposes, the 9th Circuit held that the District Court erred in not applying the threshold First Amendment test derived from Rogers v Grimaldi, 875 F. 2d 994, 999 (2nd Cir. 1989). The goal of the Rogers test is to limit the application of the Lanham Act to expressive works where “the public interest in avoiding consumer confusion outweighs the public interest in free expression.” Under the Rogers test, the use of another’s mark in an expressive work will not be actionable under the Lanham Act unless it “has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or if it has some artistic relevance, unless [it] explicitly misleads as to the source or content of the work.” These factors are not a rigid test to be applied mechanically, but instead a balancing test that recognizes that the trademark rights of the senior user and the public’s right to not be confused must be carefully weighed against the artistic license granted to the junior user. The 9th Circuit remanded the dispute to the District Court to review in light of the Rogers test, where the District Court found that Jack Daniel’s could not prove the VIP product had no artistic relevance nor that the product was explicitly misleading. The 9th Circuit affirmed the ruling, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In a 9-0 opinion drafted by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s holding. The Supreme Court criticized the 9th Circuit’s opinion that “because Bad Spaniels ‘communicates a humorous message,’ it is automatically entitled to Rogers’ protection.” The Court noted that applying Rogers to all matters where there is an expressive element would impermissibly extend Rogers to nearly all facets of life and potentially supplant the purpose of trademark law. The Court explained that trademarks act “as source identifiers—as things that function to ‘indicate the source’ of goods, and so to ‘distinguish’ them from ones ‘manufactured or sold by others.’ And because of this, “trademarks are often expressive, in any number of ways.”
The opinion stresses that the defendant’s use must be considered in determining the applicability of the Rogers test. Citing to a litany of cases, the Court noted that the Rogers test has traditionally been used only in the context of “non-trademark” use, i.e., where the defendant has used the mark at issue in a “non-source-identifying way”, typically in an expressive function. For example, as noted by J. Kagan, the Ninth Circuit applied the Rogers test to evaluate the band Aqua’s song “Barbie Girl” when toymaker Mattel sued the group for trademark infringement. Here, the record presented evidence—including even VIP’s own admission—that VIP used the design elements as a source identifier for its products. As such, the Rogers test should not have been applied.
The Court further reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling as to the “fair use” defense related to dilution by tarnishment. The 9th Circuit opined that VIP’s use of the mark was non-commercial in nature even if it was used to sell a product because it “parodies” and “conveys a humorous message.” Without setting the limits of “noncommercial use”, the Court expressly rejected the opinion that every parody or humorous commentary would automatically benefit from this defense. Instead, the Court again turned to the purpose of the use as codified in Section 43 of the Lanham Act, finding that the defense does not apply when the use is as a designation of source for the person’s own goods or services, as VIP had admitted its use to be.
In summation, the Court held as follows and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent therewith:
Today’s opinion is narrow. We do not decide whether the Rogers test is ever appropriate, or how far the “noncommercial use” exclusion goes. On infringement, we hold only that Rogers does not apply when the challenged use of a mark is as a mark. On dilution, we hold only that the noncommercial exclusion does not shield parody or other commentary when its use of a mark is similarly source-identifying. It is no coincidence that both our holdings turn on whether the use of a mark is serving a source-designation function. The Lanham Act makes that fact crucial, in its effort to ensure that consumers can tell where goods come from.
As the opinion notes, the Court did not make any decisions as to whether VIP actually infringed Jack Daniel’s trademark rights. That decision will be in the Ninth Circuit’s hands, who are ordered to review the dispute without using the Rogers test. Jack Daniel’s must still demonstrate that VIP’s products are likely to confuse an ordinary consumer as to the affiliation between VIP and Jack Daniel’s and dilute Jack Daniel’s brand, although such was already determined when the matter was first heard by the District Court. This case will likely be watched closely by famous brands who often find their brands parodied in unrelated products, as they seek to prevent any damage to their brand image.
We also note that this is the second case within the past month where the Supreme Court reined in a fair-use defense in the context of the nature of the use. In Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, 598 U.S. ___ (2023), which we discussed here, the Supreme Court declined to extend fair use to the Andy Warhol Foundations’ licensing of a Warhol print that was based on a photograph of Prince. In that case, the Court focused on the economical use and purpose of the original photograph. The Supreme Court is clearly sending a message that fair use will continue to be fact intensive to the specific issue at hand and that the specific use of the contested material is a crucial focus point.