US law: logos and satire/parody

Disclaimer: I am not seeking actual legal advice, just an idea of the extents of artistic freedom in US law. I am not involved in litigation currently, nor is litigation even likely.

If someone used the trademark logos of an international company (in this case not a US-company) and altered them as a parody/critical satire, is there any defence for that under US freedom of speech laws?

For example, let’s say you took an image of Microsoft’s logo with its slogan “The future is now” and changed that to “The future was yesterday”. Would that be protected under US law, or would you have infringed Microsoft’s rights over its trademark logo?

I note on Photobucket, for example:

I have always been quite impressed with the extent of freedom of speech in US law, as compared with other western countries, so it would surprise me if there wasn’t some fair useage of a trademark as comedy/parody/critique/satire.

In order to infringe upon a trademark, you usually have to use it (or something confusingly similar) to sell the same or similar products as the trademark holder. Editorial or satirical use of the trademark is usually not infringement.

For example, here’s an Onion article that displays McDonald’s very famous trademark.

I can think of some American pop culture examples:

– McDowell’s hamburgers with the “golden arcs” in the movie Coming to America.

– Anyone else remember Garbage Pail Kids cards? Topps, the card manufacturer, did get sued by Coleco, manufacturer of the actual Cabbage Patch Kids. But Topps settled out of court, and were able to continue to produce GPK cards, albeit with slightly modified artwork.

– Those stickers they used to have spoofing brand-name groceries – Palooka Gum instead of Bazooka. Blunder Bread instead of Wonder Bread? They cribbed the artwork pretty closely from the actual labels.

Wacky Packages – that’s them! :cool:

And some of the “Wacky Packages” titles were pulled because of cease and desist letters from the trademark holders, most famously, Morton Salt (parodied as “Moron Salt”). Whether or not Topps could have won a court battle, they chose not to fight it. For collectors, this just makes those ones more valuable because fewer of them were printed. Apparently, 35 years later, Morton Salt still cared enough about the issue to request eBay auctions of the sticker stopped:

So if one is not using the trademark for commercial reasons, nor deliberately trying to confuse customers with another product, there’s no infringement problem?

A key point of trademark law is that a trademark must be protected/defended to remain valid. Usually this means that any use of a trademark whether for commercial purposes or not is usually litigated.

I think you will be interested in this transcript of Fox News vs. Al Franken and the publishers of his book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right”. Fox claimed trademark infringement for use of their motto “Fair and Balanced”.
Fox was essentially laughed out of court by the judge after about half an hour of arguments and a five-minute recess to evaluate their position.

Oh that one is very interesting and useful - thanks for that!

OTOH, cartoonist Kieron Dwyer got bitten for what I think was a hilarious parody of Starbucks.