It is the very nature of parody to present two opposing messages: that the parody is, in fact, the genuine article that is being parodied, and that it is not the original, but is instead just a parody. When used to promote a product, the parody may transgress federal trademark law if it succeeds in the first objective but not in the second. In that case, the parody will have created customer confusion, which is a critical element for a claim of trademark infringement.
There was a recent victory for parody in the marketplace when a federal court rejected claims of trademark infringement and trademark dilution brought against the imitator. On one side was Louis Vuitton Malletier (LVM), the maker of luxury handbags, luggage, and even some pricey pet accessories. Some of LVM’s trademarks go back to the 19th century.
Distinctly at the other end of the spectrum was the upstart defendant Haute Diggity Dog (HDD), purveyor of dog toys and beds which play on the names of luxury items. Among HDD’s offerings were “Chewnel No. 5” and “Dog Perignonn.” You get the idea.
HDD targeted LVM, in particular, by offering chew toys that were shaped like miniature handbags resembling LVM products and that used patterns evoking trademarked LVM designs. Predictably, the chew toys were sold under the name “Chewy Vuiton.”
Not amused, LVM sued HDD in federal court for trademark infringement and trademark dilution. Unfortunately for LVM, the court was amused, or at least it got the joke. As the court put it, the chew toy “irreverently presents haute couture as an object for casual canine destruction. The satire is unmistakable.”
The obvious nature of the parody was legally significant because there was no real likelihood of confusing the chew toys with the upscale leather goods they were meant to evoke. There were clear and immediate differences between the products, and even the “simplified and crude” imitation of the LVM designs was not such as to create a danger of confusion with the real thing among the dog masters who do the buying. (Dogs might see no difference and chew up a $1,000 handbag as vigorously as they would a chew toy, but they have no say in trademark lawsuits.)
Trademark dilution differs from infringement in that it is not necessary to show confusion in the marketplace. It is a more nebulous concept, but prohibited dilution occurs when there is “blurring” or “tarnishment,” that is, an association arising from the similarity between the challenged mark or name and the famous mark that impairs the distinctiveness of the famous mark. In the end, the very fact that the chew toy parody was successful defeated the dilution claim, just as it had the infringement claim.
LVM’s trademarks are quite famous–the court called them “icons of fashion.” But the fame actually worked to LVM’s disadvantage in court by increasing its burden of demonstrating that the parody really was likely to tarnish the distinctiveness of LVM’s name and products. Not only that, but the court saw the parody as probably having a salutary effect on LVM: A successful parody might actually enhance the famous mark’s distinctiveness by making it more of an icon. As the court put it, the target of the joke becomes yet more famous. You might say that the court told LVM to lighten up and see the upside of having its products lampooned.