The Right to Poke Fun

My Other Bag prints sketched images of iconic handbags onto canvas totes. The bags are brilliant, funny, and flattering.

Louis Vuitton sued My Other Bag for trademark infringement.[1] The courts ruled for My Other Bag.[2]

It’s incredibly hard to properly parody a trademark. For the joke to work, the image of the trademark being parodied has to be recognizable. But, if it’s too convincing, you’re infringing. As the Court of Appeals said, My Other Bag managed to convey “two simultaneous—and contradictory—messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody.”[3]

A few years ago, Louis Vuitton sued Warner Brothers over a joke in a movie. The Hangover: Part II included a scene where a character was established as an uncool wannabe by showing him carrying a knockoff of a Louis Vuitton bag. Louis Vuitton lost that case, too.

If you own a famous trademark, it’s important to protect your rights, but it’s equally important to have a sense of humor so you can tell the difference between infringement and permissible parody.

In both the Warner Brothers and the My Other Bag cases, the viewer had to acknowledge that Louis Vuitton was a highly desirable, iconic, luxury brand and that the thing she was looking at wasn’t an actual Louis Vuitton. That’s the key to the distinction.

If Louis Vuitton had a sense of humor, it could avoid looking like a bully and get free favorable publicity. Sounds like a good outcome for everyone to me.

 

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[1] The suit also included a claim for copyright infringement. I’m not going to discuss that here, except to say that it was shot down by the court, too.

[2] The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Jesse M. Furman, Judge) granted My Other Bag a summary judgment on all claims on January 8, 2016. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the judgment as to all claims on December 22, 2016.

[3] Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., Inc., 73 F.3d 497, 503 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Cliffs Notes, Inc. v. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publ’g Grp., Inc., 886 F.2d 490, 495 (2d Cir. 1989)).

Photo copyright My Other Bag. Used with permission.

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