Louis Vuitton is no stranger to trademark disputes. As a a manufacturer of handbags, wallets, and other luxury goods, the company has its hands full just addressing counterfeit products. However, like any other company, there is concern not just with “fakes,” but other products and services that may otherwise infringe or dilute Louis Vuitton’s trademark rights (anyone hungry for luxury waffles?). The company takes an admittedly “aggressive” approach to enforcement, sometimes resulting in criticism. For example, Louis Vuitton created controversy in the legal world with a cease and desist letter to a law school over a fashion law symposium flyer that riffed off of the LV handbag motif. While Louis Vuitton has won many legal battles, it has also lost a few, too. Last week, the Southern District of New York added another tally to the loss column, granting summary judgment to the defendant, My Other Bag, Inc. (“MOB”) (decision available here).
Louis Vuitton sued MOB in 2014. MOB created a line of canvas tote bags that sell in the range of $30 – $55. The founder of the company provides an origin story for the brand on its website:
One fine day in sunny Los Angeles, California a designer handbag junkie found herself walking out of a grocery store with an arm full of perishables and a burning question: “if I don’t want to stuff my produce in my Prada, where can I find a stylish, Eco-conscious reusable bag?” Underwhelmed with her options, she took it upon herself to create My Other Bag: a line of Eco-friendly, sustainable tote bags playfully parodying the designer bags we love, but practical enough for everyday life.
On one side of the canvas tote bag appears the phrase “My other bag…” and on the other side appears a cartoon of a luxury handbag (with some changes to the shapes, and replacement of the LV with MOB). The bag that formed the basis for this suit is shown below (and is still up for sale on MOB’s website):
Louis Vuitton sued MOB, alleging trademark infringement, trademark dilution, false designation of origin, and copyright infringement. MOB moved for summary judgment on all counts, claiming that MOB’s use of an image that invoked the Louis Vuitton design was a parody and therefore a fair use.
A claim of “parody” is not a defense in and of itself, but generally qualifies as a type of fair use for copyright infringement and for claims of dilution. Section 43(c)(3) of the Lanham Act also specifically identifies “fair use” to include uses that are “parodying, criticizing, or commenting upon [a] famous mark.” With regard to trademark infringement, while there isn’t a strict “parody as fair use” defense, courts generally rely on the “defense” as a means of concluding that consumers are not likely to be confused. Defendants and applicants frequently claim that their reference to a famous mark qualifies as a fair use, with mixed results (for example, here, here, and here).
One decision frequently cited by courts to evaluate a parody defense involves a familiar name , Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, LLC, 507 F.3d 252 (4th Cir. 2007). In Haute Diggity Dog, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a finding that a pet toy manufacturer’s use of CHEWY VUITTON in connection pet chew toys constituted a parody that did not infringe Luis Vuitton’s trademark rights. That decision, and the court here, identified a parody as a work that (1) references the original/famous brand, (2) but makes clear that the work is not the original/famous brand, and (3) communicates some articulable element of satire, ridicule, joking, or amusement.
Here, the court had no trouble concluding that MOB’s bags constituted a parody. The tote clearly referenced the Louis Vuitton product through the similar design. However, MOB’s bag made clear that the bag was not a Louis Vuitton bag. As the judge noted, “the whole point is to play on the well-known “my other car . . .” joke by playfully suggesting that the carriers’ “other bag” – that is, not the bag that he or she is carrying – is a Louis Vuitton bag.”
Louis Vuitton argued that MOB’s bags do not criticize or disparage the Louis Vuitton brand and therefore cannot be a parody. Louis Vuitton relied upon an unpublished decision in which Louis Vuitton successfully defeated a parody claim asserted by Hyundai Motor for its use of a similar design motif on a basketball in a car commercial. In that case, Louis Vuitton elicited testimony from Hyundai Motor in which it admitted that Hyundai did not intend to criticize or make fun of Louis Vuitton. The court distinguished that case (and noted that it would have declined to follow the decision any way), concluding that even vague critiques or general commentary can be sufficient to establish a parody.
In the end, the court granted summary judgment to MOB on all of its claims. The successful parody defense defeated Louis Vuitton’s claims of copyright infringement and dilution. With regard to trademark infringement, the court concluded that the parties’ products targeted different customers, were not competitive, that the purchasers of Louis Vuitton bags were sophisticated, the channels of trade distinct, and that there was a lack of any actual confusion. In summarizing the factors, the court reasoned that the “purchasing public must be credited with at least a modicum of intelligence” and concluded that the joke was so “obvious” that there could be no mistake as to source or affiliation.
This decision demonstrates the subjective nature of evaluating parody and fair use defenses. Two courts in the same district with very similar facts reached completely opposite conclusions. At first glance, I would have expected a two second clip of a basketball with a similar design in a car commercial to have a stronger argument for a parody defense than a canvas tote bag displaying a similar design (that is actually being sold). Stay tuned for coverage of any appeal, but for now, it looks like the score is Louis Vuitton 1 : Parody 2.