Teresa Scassa - Blog

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 11:13

Trademarks in Artistic Works: Freedom of Expression or Trademark Infringement?

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently issued an interesting opinion that addresses the issue of whether trademarks can be reproduced without permission in artistic works. In The University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. New Life Art, Inc. & Daniel A. Moore, the University of Alabama sued a well known artist who had built his career around paintings featuring the University’s famous Crimson Tide football team. The paintings inevitably feature a number of the University’s trademarks, including logos on helmets and jerseys and the team’s signature colours. The well-known artist sold not only his paintings, but also prints, calendars, mugs and other items featuring reproductions of his works.

Moore painted football scenes from 1979 to 1990 without entering into any kind of agreement with the University of Alabama. In the period between 1991 and 1999 he entered into several different licence agreements for the production and marketing of specific items that would feature both his artistic works and additional University of Alabama trademarks. These products would bear markings indicating they were “official” merchandise, and proceeds of sale were shared with the university. During this period Moore continued to create paintings independent of any licence agreement. The university never asked him to pay royalties or otherwise seek permission for the sale of any paintings or prints of his work.

In 2002, the University changed its position with respect to Moore’s work, and informed him that he would need a licence for any University of Alabama-related works that featured University trademarks. Moore disagreed and did not seek licences for his paintings and prints. The University bookstore sold unlicensed calendars featuring Moore’s work during this period. It also had several of Moore’s unlicensed paintings hanging at different locations on campus. The disagreement eventually blossomed into litigation; the University sued Moore for violating their trademark rights in his paintings, prints, calendars, mugs and other items. At trial, the judge ruled that use of trademarks in the paintings and prints was protected by the First Amendment (freedom of speech), but that the reproduction of these same paintings on other merchandise fell outside the scope of the First Amendment and would likely infringe the trademarks by causing consumer confusion.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the inclusion of the University’s trademarks in the paintings, prints and calendars was indeed protected by the First Amendment. The Court stated: “we conclude that the First Amendment interests in artistic expression so clearly outweigh whatever consumer confusion that might exist on these facts that we must necessarily conclude that there has been no violation of the Lanham Act with respect to the paintings, prints, and calendars.” The Court rejected the University’s arguments that the paintings, prints and calendars represented commercial speech, and were therefore entitled to a lower level of constitutional protection. According to the Court, the fact that the items were sold for money did not render them commercial speech. The Court ruled that trademark rights should be construed narrowly in the context of artistic works. It ruled that “[t]he depiction of the University’s uniforms in the content of these items is artistically relevant to the expressive underlying works because the uniform’s colors and designs are needed for a realistic portrayal of famous scenes from Alabama football history.”

Unfortunately, Moore did not appeal the decision of the lower court that the paintings on the mugs and other items (including t-shirts, towels and so on) fell outside first amendment protection. Instead, he argued that the University, through its conduct had acquiesced to the sale of this merchandise. The issue was remanded to the district court for further consideration. It would certainly have been interesting to have a ruling on the issue of whether a trademark owner could place limits on the right of an artist to sell copies of works featuring trademarks through a broad range of merchandising opportunities.

Although similar questions have not yet been raised in Canadian courts, the issues are important here as well. In 2007, the federal government enacted special legislation to give enhanced protection to Olympic and Paralympic trademarks. When concerns were raised about the impact the law might have on the freedom of expression of artists who might create works incorporating these well known marks, Parliament amended the law to include the following exception:

 

3(6) For greater certainty, the inclusion of an Olympic or Paralympic mark or a translation of it in any language in an artistic work, within the meaning of the Copyright Act, by the author of that work, is not in itself a use in connection with a business if the work is not reproduced on a commercial scale. [my emphasis]

 

The expression “for greater certainty” suggests that the provision is simply clarifying the law rather than creating a new exception. While the provision makes it clear that the protected trademarks may be incorporated into artistic works, those works only qualify for the exception if they are “not reproduced on a commercial scale.” This is a rather tricky phrase. It is not at all clear what the reproduction of an artistic work on a commercial scale would entail. A single painting offered for sale might be acceptable, but a numbered series of prints might not. Further, it might not be permissible for an artist to licence multiple unnumbered prints, or to publish his or her work in a calendar. While all of these uses of an artistic work would appear to be protected by the First Amendment in the United States, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act seems to codify a narrower scope for artistic expression. The question of mugs, t-shirts and other items featuring the artistic work is entirely unresolved.

Canadian courts have tended to take a narrow view of freedom of expression issues in intellectual property law. The Moore case in the United States is provocative for challenging the balance between the expressive rights of an artist whose work incorporates the trademarks of others and the rights of the trademark holder. It remains to be seen how a Canadian court will approach such a balancing act, and how, in consequence it might interpret such an ambiguous provision as s. 3(6) of the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act.

 

Last modified on Thursday, 28 January 2016 10:45
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