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University of Alabama Sacked for a Trademark Loss

A significant trademark ruling came down on Monday in University of Ala. Bd of Trustees v. New Life, Inc. The case pitted the University of Alabama, a longtime college football powerhouse, against Daniel Moore, an artist who creates and sells paintings of famous ‘Bama football plays. The University claimed that these images, such as the one to the left of this paragraph, violated their trademark rights in the distinctive ‘Bama uniform and logo.

Does an artist have the right to use trademarks in his works? And what are the broader implications of the ruling?

University of Alabama Trademark Case

The 11th Circuit Federal Court ruled in favor of Moore on First Amendment grounds. Essentially, Moore’s right to free expression trumped any trademark rights the University may enjoy in the images. The Court stated:

The depiction of the University’s uniforms in the content of these items is artistically relevant to the expressive underlying works because the uniforms’ colors and designs are needed for a realistic portrayal of famous scenes from Alabama football history. Also there is no evidence that Moore ever marketed an unlicensed item as “endorsed” or “sponsored” by the University, or otherwise explicitly stated that such items were affiliated with the University. Moore’s paintings, prints, and calendars very clearly are embodiments of artistic expression, and are entitled to full First Amendment protection. The extent of his use of the University’s trademarks is their mere inclusion (their necessary inclusion) in the body of the image which Moore creates to memorialize and enhance a particular play or event in the University’s football history. Even if “some members of the public would draw the incorrect inference that [the University] had some involvement with [Moore’s paintings, prints, and calendars,] . . . that risk of misunderstanding, not engendered by any overt [or in this case even implicit] claim . . . is so outweighed by the interest in artistic expression as to preclude” any violation of the Lanham Act [the Federal law that covers trademarks]. Rogers, 875 F.2d at 1001.

The Rogers citation refers to Rogers v. Grimaldi, a 1989 2nd Circuit case concerning Ginger and Fred, a movie about two fictional dancers named (surprise!) Ginger and Fred. Ginger Rogers sued, claiming that the title falsely implied a connection between this film and the films/lives/personae of Ms. Rogers and Fred Astaire. That court ruled in favor of the filmmaker.

Broader Implications for Movies, TV, and Video Games

As Eriq Gardner points out in the Hollywood Reporter’s law blog, this new ruling may have broad implications for the entertainment industry. Filmmakers, among other artists, are often confused about their rights to display trademarked images in their works. The Alabama case joins a string of rulings that uphold the rights of graphic artists, filmmakers, video game designers, and others to use trademarks in their works as long as a direct connection is not created in the minds of the consumers between the artists work in question and the trademark owner. From a policy perspective, this makes sense. Artists need to be able to depict the real world, and as we all know, that world involves a constant stream of brands and logos.

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