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Free Speech

"Punchbowl News" Doesn't Infringe Trademark for "Punchbowl" Online Greeting Card Service


From today's decision in Punchbowl, Inc. v. AJ Press, LLC, written by Judge Daniel Bress and joined by Judge John Owens and District Judge Sidney Fitzwater:

Punchbowl, Inc., is an online party and event planning service. Punchbowl News is a  subscription-based online news publication that provides articles, podcasts, and videos about American politics, from a Washington, D.C. insider's perspective. Punchbowl claims that Punchbowl News is misusing its "Punchbowl" trademark. Applying our precedents, we hold that Punchbowl News's use of the term "Punchbowl" is expressive in nature and not explicitly misleading as to its source. It thus falls outside the Lanham Act [the federal trademark statute -EV] as a matter of law.

Seems quite right to me, under the so-called Rogers test:

The Lanham Act "creates a comprehensive framework for regulating the use of trademarks and protecting them against infringement, dilution, and unfair competition." Traditionally, courts apply a likelihood-of-confusion test to claims brought under the Lanham Act.

When "artistic expression is at issue," however, we have held that "the traditional test fails to account for the full weight of the public's interest in free expression." If we were to disregard "the expressive value that some marks assume, trademark rights would grow to encroach upon the zone protected by the First Amendment." Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc. (9th Cir. 2002). A trademark owner "'does not have the right to control public discourse' by enforcing his mark." Thus, "if the product involved is an expressive work," we apply a gateway test, grounded in background First Amendment concerns, to determine whether the Lanham Act applies.

In Mattel, we adopted the approach set forth by the Second Circuit in Rogers v. Grimaldi (2d Cir. 1989). Under the Rogers test, the defendant must first "make a threshold legal showing that its allegedly infringing use is part of an expressive work protected by the First Amendment." If the defendant meets this burden, the Lanham Act does not apply unless "the defendant's use of the mark (1) is not artistically relevant to the work or (2) explicitly misleads consumers as to the source or the content of the work." "Neither of these prongs is easy to meet." This approach is justified, we have held, because of the First Amendment interests at stake and because consumers are less likely to believe that someone using a mark in an expressive work is seeking to attribute its work to the trademark holder.

And the court made clear that this applies to expressive works generally, and not just artistic works:

We easily reject Punchbowl's argument that AJ Press's "various publications include 'opinions' and 'journalism' that are a far cry from the types of artistic and creative works that often merit heightened protection." Any attempt to divide up the world between fact and fiction, news and art, fails under the First Amendment concerns that animate Rogers and its progeny. "The Free Speech Clause exists principally to protect discourse on public matters." News publications "communicat[e] ideas" and "express[] points of view" on matters of public concern. Punchbowl News is plainly an expressive work, and its use of "Punchbowl" is likewise expressive in nature. Punchbowl's suggestion that, under Rogers, news and opinion should be treated differently from "creative" works, finds no support in our cases.

My UCLA First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic students Elizabeth Anastasi, Max Hyams, and Sofie Oldroyd and I filed an amicus brief in the case arguing in favor of this result, on behalf of Profs. Ann Bartow, Jim Gibson, James Grimmelmann, Mark Lemley, Phil Malone, Mark McKenna, Lisa Ramsey, Jeremy Sheff, Jessica Silbey, Christopher Sprigman, and Rebecca Tushnet. Congratulations to Ian C. Ballon, Rebekah S. Guyon, and Nina D. Boyajian (Greenberg Traurig LLP), who represented AJ Press.