August 1, 2023
Toying With Rogers
This test comes from Rogers v. Grimaldi. In that case, the actress Ginger Rogers sued the studio that released a film titled Ginger and Fred, claiming the film’s use of her name implied that she sponsored the movie. Rogers lost in the lower court and appealed to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision dismissing Roger’s case.
In its decision, the Second Circuit held that where the title of an artistic work includes a celebrity’s name “suppressing an artistically relevant though ambiguous[ly] title[d] film” on trademark grounds would “unduly restrict expression.” Thus, the Second Circuit concluded that trademark law does not apply unless the “title has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless the title explicitly misleads as to the source or content of the work.”
This test was meant to allow artists to use trademarks without permission when the use has artistic relevance to their work and does not explicitly mislead consumers into thinking the celebrity endorsed the work. Put another way, it aimed to avoid conflicts between the First Amendment and federal trademark law (a/k/a Lanham Act), at least when it comes to the name of a film. Legally speaking, this isn’t crazy.
However, there’s a problem. The Rogers test is made up. The Second Circuit’s opinion in Rogers doesn’t provide any citations for this test or explain where it comes from. This has become a problem especially because courts have expanded the Rogers test far beyond its original confines.
Notably, in 2020 the Ninth Circuit in Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. v. VIP Products LLC dismissed a case brought by the bourbon manufacturer on grounds that it could not satisfy Rogers in a case against the manufacturer of a squeaky dog toy shaped like a bottle of Jack Daniels. The Ninth Circuit found that the dog toy at issue was “expressive” because it “communicates a ‘humorous message.’” This is pretty far from where we started — a film directed by Federico Fellini that told the story of fictional performers named Ginger and Fred.
In early June the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. The Supreme Court held that where a trademark is being used as a trademark — that is, to indicate the source of goods or services — the trademark owner does not have to satisfy Rogers. It further concluded that the dog toy shape and label parodying Jack Daniels branding was just that: a trademark being used to indicate the source of the dog toy.
In its main opinion, which was unanimous, the Supreme Court went out of its way to say that it was not explicitly overruling Rogers and took no view as to its ongoing viability. However, five Justices filed concurring opinions to make certain points. Notably, three justices — Gorsuch, Thomas, and Barrett — wrote a one-paragraph opinion “to underscore that lower courts should handle Rogers v. Grimaldi… with care.”
Since then, the Supreme Court sent another case that involved the application of Rogers back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration in light of its Jack Daniels ruling. In that case — Diece-Lisa Industries, Inc. v. Disney Store USA, LLC — toymaker Diece-Lisa sued a bunch of Disney-affiliated companies for trademark infringement, claiming that the “Lots-O’-Huggin’” (aka “Lotso”) character in the 2010 film Toy Story 3 too closely resembles Diece-Lisa’s “Lots of Hugs” bear. (The Ninth Circuit had previously declined requests that Rogers should not apply or should be limited and had instead ruled that Diece-Lisa’s case had to be dismissed under the Rogers test.)
It will be interesting to see what the Ninth Circuit does here particularly as not only was Lotso a character in an expressive work, but Disney also sold dolls based on the movie character. If the case does make its way back to the Supreme Court, that court may have to confront the continuing viability of Rogers as well as what happens when there is both an expressive use (i.e. Lotso the movie character) and a more purely commercial use (i.e. the toy sold by Disney).
This case will serve as an interesting test of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jack Daniels and may help to clarify the reach of that case.