Christopher Gordon is a comedian who created a viral video about the honey badger with the notable catch phrase, “Honey Badger Don’t Care,” among others. He later trademarked that phrase and sued greeting card companies for trademark infringement for using that phrase, or a variation thereof, without his permission. As a result, the Ninth Circuit was recently asked to revisit the test set forth in Rogers v. Gramaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989), to determine whether the greeting card companies could use Gordon’s catch phrase without infringing on his trademark.
Gordon originally created his Honey Badger video and posted it to YouTube in 2011. It quickly generated millions of views on YouTube and he began selling goods with the Honey Badger catch phrases. In June 2011, Gordon copyrighted his video and shortly thereafter registered the “Honey Badger Don’t Care” mark with the Patent and Trademark Office, including for goods such as greeting cards. Gordon’s Honey Badger brand received a boost when notable celebrities used it and in late 2011, the “Honey Badger” brand was identified as one of ‘America’s hottest brands” by Advertising Age.
In early 2012, Gordon hired a licensing agent to begin licensing Honey Badger themed products, including greeting cards. That agent met with representatives of American Greetings but no licensing agreement was ever entered into. Gordon was successful, however, in entering into licensing agreements with various other greeting card companies. In mid-2012, American Greetings and Papyrus Recycled Greetings began marketing seven different greeting cards using small variations on the “Honey Badger” catch phrases. The president of one of the defendant greeting card companies testified that he created all of the greeting cards in question and while he did not recall what had inspired their designs, he claimed never to have heard of Gordon’s “Honey Badger” video.
Gordon filed a lawsuit against the two greeting card companies for trademark infringement in June 2015. However, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and found that the “Rogers” test applied to bar all of Gordon’s infringement claims. Gordon then appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit began by recognizing that the purpose of the Lanham Act is to ensure that “(1) `owners of trademarks can benefit from the goodwill associated with their marks,’ and (2) `consumers can distinguish among competing producers.’” To establish a trademark infringement claim, a plaintiff normally has to show that it: (1) “has a valid protectable trademark;” and (2) “the defendant’s use of the mark is likely to cause confusion.” In this case it was undisputed that Gordon had a viable registered trademark so this first prong was satisfied. The Ninth Circuit cautioned; however, that the likelihood of confusion test is meant to strike “a comfortable balance” between the Lanham Act and the First Amendment.
Thus, in order to protect the public’s interest and free expression, the Ninth Circuit had adopted the Rogers test from the Second Circuit to ensure that these competing interests are appropriately balanced. In essence, the Ninth Circuit adopted the Rogers test so that it would limit the Lanham Act “to apply to artistic works only where the public interest in avoiding consumer confusion outweighs the public interest and free expression.” Thus, under the Rogers test, a defendant accused of trademark infringement must “come forward and make a threshold legal showing that its allegedly infringing use is part of an expressive work protected by the First Amendment.” If a defendant can make that showing, “then the plaintiff claiming trademark infringement bears a heightened burden … the plaintiff must satisfy not only the likelihood of confusion test but also at least one of Rogers’ two prongs.” That is, the plaintiff must then show that his or her mark is “either not artistically relevant to the underlying work or explicitly misleads consumers as to the source or content of the work.”
The Ninth Circuit then began by reviewing the Rogers case and several Ninth Circuit decisions that subsequently applied it. In Rogers, at issue was an Italian movie about two fictional Italian cabaret performers who imitated Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in a film titled, “Ginger and Fred.” Ginger Rogers sued the film’s producers for trademark infringement alleging that the title gave the false impression to filmgoers that the movie was either about her or sponsored by her. The Second Circuit rejected her claim and found that the names Ginger and Fred were “not arbitrarily chosen just to exploit the publicity value of their real life counterparts” but rather, because they had “genuine relevance to the film’s story.” Following the Rogers decision, the Ninth Circuit applied it to dispose of trademark infringement claims involving Barbie dolls (Matel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc.), a hip hop record label (20th Century Fox Television v. Empire Distribution, Inc.), and the videogame Grand Theft Auto (ESS Entertainment 2000, Inc. v. Rockstar Videos, Inc.).
The Ninth Circuit found, however, that the instant Honey Badger case showed the limits of the Rogers decision. It reasoned that although the Defendant’s greeting cards “are expressive works to which Rogers applies in,” there remained the factual issue as to whether their use of the “Honey Badger” catch phrase was artistically relevant.
The Ninth Circuit recognized that the Defendants had met their initial burden of showing that the greeting cards are “expressive works protected under the First Amendment” since a greeting card is intended to “convey a particularized message.” However, as to the artistic relevance inquiry, the question is not only whether the mark is relevant to the rest of the work, but rather, “whether the mark is relevant to the Defendants’ own artistry.” That is, whether the Defendant uses it for artistic reasons. On the other the hand, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that “the use of a mark is not artistically relevant if the defendant uses it merely to appropriate the goodwill inhering in the mark or for no reason at all.”
The Court concluded that a jury could look at the facts and determine that Defendants had used the “Honey Badger” catch phrase merely to use the goodwill that Gordon had established in his mark “without adding any creativity of their own.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that the jury should decide “whether Defendants added their own artistic expression as opposed to just copying Gordon’s artistic expression.”
The Ninth Circuit found it significant that Plaintiff had presented evidence that he had sold various products bearing his mark, had discussed a licensing deal with representatives of at least Defendants’ parent corporation, and that Defendants started developing their product lines only after that meeting had occurred. In sum, the Ninth Circuit concluded that there was evidence “that Defendants simply used Gordon’s mark in the same way that Gordon was using it. To make humorous greeting cards in which the bottom line is `Honey Badger Don’t Care.’” Thus, the Court ordered that the summary judgment in Defendants’ favor be reversed.
Defendants in trademark infringement cases should explore whether the Rogers test can provide them some immunity from a trademark infringement claim. However, to do so, they should be prepared to establish that they did more than merely use the Plaintiff’s mark in an identical or similar manner to the plaintiff.
James Kachmar is a shareholder in Weintraub Tobin Chediak Coleman Grodin’s litigation section. He represents corporate and individual clients in both state and federal courts in various business litigation matters, including trade secret misappropriation, unfair business competition, stockholder disputes, and intellectual property disputes. For additional articles on intellectual property issues, please visit Weintraub’s law blog at www.theiplawblog.com.