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Austin’s SXSW Festival Wins Trademark “Fight” with the Australian Labor Party

Posted in Articles, Branding, Fair Use, Famous Marks, Goodwill, Infringement, International

Austin, Texas is well-known for its food, music scene, and of course its University of Texas Longhorns. The exclamation point on Austin’s notoriety though is the annual South by Southwest (a.k.a. SXSW) festival. Since its first year in 1987, the festival has grown into one of the largest music festivals in the world and, in addition to music, includes conferences, roundtable discussions, and viewings in the world of film, media, technology, and anything “new.”

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The SXSW has generated intense buzz, notoriety, and (most likely) economic benefits for the Austin area. Unsurprisingly, many other cities have attempted to create similar festivals of their own. Over the years it has requested changes to SVSX / Silicon Valley Sound eXperience in San Jose, California (changed to C2SV YxYY / Yes by Yes Yes in Brooklyn, New York (changed to Yes and Yes Yes), NX35 / North by 35 in Denton, Texas (changed to North by 35), and others.

Even the White House has gotten in on the action, hosting the first ever SXSL (South by South Lawn) event earlier this week on October 3. The White House’s event SXSL event was promoted in tandem with SXSW, though, so it appears no risk of infringement there.

In Australia, the Labor Party sought to create buzz with a proposed annual music festival in Canberra, which is apparently in the Southeast part of Australia. The Labor Party’s proposed name for the festival was, you guessed it, South by Southeast. According to TheMusic.com.au, SXSW’s Australia representative Phil Tripp had a “friendly conversation” regarding the proposed name. Tripp informed the media outlet that “We’re not angry, we’re cool with what’s going on [but] with trademarks, you have to assert your rights.”

Based on public reports, the exchange was friendly and resulted in a quick resolution with no letters, threats, or lawyers. The SXSW rep described the situation as a common occurrence, and was even friendly enough to imagine the innocent way in which the name was proposed:

What [Labor] did was, they looked at our event — everybody knows South By, so to speak — and they go, ‘Ooh, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something like South By Southeast?’ That’s where we are!” Instead of South By South By South, which would be much more original [laughs]

Okay, so he took a jab at the Labor Party’s imagination and creativity, but they kind of had it coming.

When dealing with issues of trademark infringement, there are times where a business to business contact works best. There are times when it is better for the communication to come directly from a lawyer. Even then, the content and tone of any of these communications can vary across a wide spectrum. In the end, SXSW’s approach to enforcement demonstrates again that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach to trademark enforcement and that the strategy of how you say something is just as important as what you’re saying.