When Satire Goes Meta

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The Onion gets a letter from the White House (really):

"It has come to my attention that The Onion is using the presidential seal on its Web site," Grant M. Dixton, associate counsel to the president, wrote to The Onion on Sept. 28. (At the time, Mr. Dixton's office was also helping Mr. Bush find a Supreme Court nominee; days later his boss, Harriet E. Miers, was nominated.)

Citing the United States Code, Mr. Dixton wrote that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement." Exceptions may be made, he noted, but The Onion had never applied for such an exception.

The Onion was amused. "I'm surprised the president deems it wise to spend taxpayer money for his lawyer to write letters to The Onion," Scott Dikkers, editor in chief, wrote to Mr. Dixton. He suggested the money be used instead for tax breaks for satirists.

New York Times account here.

NEXT: Baseball Non-Sequituring Political Metaphor of the Week

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  1. Why does the Onion hate America?

  2. “…in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement.”

    Is anyone really going to think that GWB endorsed The Onion?!?

    Oh, nevermind, don’t answer that.

  3. Parody? Anyone, anyone? Parody?

  4. “Associate counsel”?

    Like next-in-line after Harriet Miers?

    The idiots counsel the idiot…

  5. Just thought I should point out that while there is a parody exemption to copyright law, I don’t think there is one to trademark law (which this case most closely resembles). On the other hand trademark law is less stringent for other reasons (such as allowing the no reasonable person would get confused defense, or the neglect defense etc.)

    I’m not an IP lawyer though, and would appreciate if anyone who actually knows the relevant law would comment about where this case would fall in the IP spectrum of things.

  6. Given that the Presidential seal is a trademark owned by the US gov’t, and given that the US gov’t is allegedly answerable to We The People, I’d think that the Onion should enjoy a parody exemption.

    The White House better be careful here. The Zweibel family retains some of the country’s finest legal talent, and if the White House keeps this up Mr. Anchower might just lead a Million Stoner March on the White House.

    Of course, most of them won’t show up for the march, but still.

  7. Grant Dixton, when you’re ready to have a serious conversation about parody exemptions you have my email address.

  8. Apropos of nothing, in college Grant Dixton was once manager of this fine organization, though he’s not very representative of its other membership.

  9. Heh. If the govt can trademark the presidential seal, it can copyright the Bill of Rights and send threatening letters to anyone who puts it in print.

  10. I think the white house’s concern might stem from some of the Onion’s earlier stories that have turned out to be much closer to reality than the BS that streams from the offical sources.

  11. Didn’t the Chinese press once report as fact an Onion story along the lines of turning the Capitol into a killing machine?

  12. crimethink — quit giving them ideas.

  13. I’m not an IP lawyer though, and would appreciate if anyone who actually knows the relevant law would comment about where this case would fall in the IP spectrum of things.

    Here’s a good start on your research:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:L

    As you can see from this Wiki, trademark law has no (automatic, but perhaps some persuasive) application to governmental symbols (eg, the Olympics, the Pres Seal, Currency).

  14. Mark,

    There are better examples of life-imitating-Onion than that partisan screed thinly disguised as satire. When did Bush sell off the national parks — not that I’d be opposed to that, mind you…

  15. I agree crimethink. I only think the Onion’s funny when they make fun of the democrats.

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/31357

  16. Well, if you insist on only reading Onion articles that bash Democrats, why not this one?

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/32970

  17. “I only think the Onion’s funny when they make fun of the democrats.”

    – fit for the onion.

  18. as reality approaches the limit of perfect satire, i get more and more depressed about the american state of affairs.

  19. But just think, gaius: your writing style might land you a job at the Onion within the next couple of years.

  20. or commentary. but then, what’s the difference? ­čÖé

  21. I only like the Onion is funny when they make of Libertarians. What can I say? I’m self loathing.

    L.A. Efficiency Chosen As Site Of 2000 Libertarian Convention

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38758

    Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/32825

  22. I shouldn’t post before coffee.

  23. I remember seeing that Onion piece when it came out. Back then, it really did read as over-the-top satire. The idea of an exploding deficit and another Gulf War sized military adventure were the stuff of eye rolling and chuckling.

  24. Parody is a great example of where intellectual property rights can butt heads with First Amendment speech protections. Focusing strictly on trademark law, my feeling is that the use of a mark in a situation that clearly involves commentary on the underlying product, service, or company must be a fair use; otherwise, the courts are saying that the Lanham Act trumps the First Amendment. Uh, no. Trademark law has no direct Consitutional authority, being merely statutory in nature. Unfortunately, all of what I’m saying is correct from a way-things-should-be perspective, but from the actual line of cases dealing with trademark (and copyight) parody, things are far from clear.

    In fact, even copyight, which is expressly mentioned in the Constitution, should fail when it conflicts too directly with free expression rights. The reason for this is simple–copyright and patent protections are set out as something Congress has the authority to implement, but it is not required to do so. Congress could (takings issues aside) abolish IP protections altogether tomorrow. However, we’re all familiar with the language of the First Amendment, which clearly limits Congressional actions affecting speech.

    The use of the presidential seal isn’t really a trademark matter, of course, but the restrictions on its use are purely statutory–not Constitutional–and should fail to the extent that they interfere with free expression and don’t have some compelling purpose for such interference. By the wording of the statute itself, The Onion’s use is permissible–no reasonable person would think The Onion was attempting to use the seal to show government endorsement of its product. Quite the contrary!

    To make things worse, these kinds of laws, as well as overly restrictive copyright and trademark cases, end up having a fairly serious chilling effect on speech. Try using Mickey Mouse’s image to say something bad about Disney.

  25. What scares me is that none of these Really Important Folks in the WH could figure out that the Onion was not “suggest[ing] presidential support or endorsement.”

    Aren’t these the folks that are supposed to be protecting us from The Terrorists??? Confidence not inspired.

  26. Aren’t these the folks that are supposed to be protecting us from The Terrorists???

    And pornography. Don’t forget the big Justice Department priority last year was obscenity prosecutions.

    The poor dears must be working themselves to the bone. When do they find time to read the Onion?

  27. The poor dears must be working themselves to the bone. When do they find time to read the Onion?

    Well, they *are* government workers, after all…

  28. Doesn’t SNL sometimes use the Presidential Seal in its skits? Has the White House ever complained? Perhaps they figure no one is watching? Can I think of a fourth question to ask?

  29. Ethan said, “Can I think of a fourth question to ask?” He should have said “fifth question,” but who’s counting?

  30. Doesn’t SNL sometimes use the Presidential Seal in its skits?

    Probably.

    Has the White House ever complained?

    Probably not.

    Perhaps they figure no one is watching?

    Probably not.

    Can I think of a fourth question to ask?

    The next logical question in this series is whether the Onion can argue that the White House “slept on its rights” in regards to the sui generis statutory protection afforded the seal, legally losing its ability to enforce that law thru estoppel or similar legal doctrines. The answer is very likely no.

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