The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining use of a trademark and trade dress associated with an iconic sneaker design over a First Amendment artistic expression defense. Vans, Inc. v. MSCHF Product Studio, Inc., Case No. 22-1006 (2d Cir. Dec. 5, 2023) (per curiam). This case is the first time a federal appeals court has applied the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent decision in Jack Daniel’s v. VIP Products, which clarified when heightened First Amendment protections apply to expressive uses of another’s trademark and trade dress.
MSCHF Product Studio is a Brooklyn-based art collective known for provocative works that critique consumer culture. It sells its works in limited releases during prescribed sales periods called “drops.” It promoted and sold a shoe called the “Wavy Baby,” which is a distorted, corrugated version of the iconic black-and-white Vans Old Skool sneaker. MSCHF claimed that the product was a commentary on consumerism in sneakerhead culture and that the Wavy Baby shoes were not meant to be worn but were instead “collectible work[s] of art.”
MSCHF promoted the shoes using the musician Tyga. Vans sent MSCHF a cease-and-desist letter and a week later filed a six-count complaint in federal court, including a claim for trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. The following day, Vans filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, seeking to have the court enjoin the sale of the Wavy Baby shoes. Nevertheless, MSCHF proceeded with its pre-planned drop of the Wavy Baby sneakers and sold 4,306 pairs of the Wavy Baby in one hour.
About a week later, after oral argument on the temporary restraining order (TRO) motion, the district court granted Vans’s motion. The district court concluded that Vans would likely prevail in showing a likelihood of consumer confusion and rejected MSCHF’s contention that the Wavy Baby was entitled to special First Amendment protections because it was an artistic parody. MSCHF appealed.
The Second Circuit held the appeal in abeyance pending the Supreme Court’s Jack Daniel’s decision. In that case, Jack Daniel’s sued the maker of a squeaky dog toy that resembled the iconic whiskey bottle and used puns involving dog excrement in place of the actual language of the Jack Daniel’s label. In a unanimous decision, the Court clarified that special First Amendment protections (as used in the Rogers test for expressive works that incorporate another’s trademark) do not apply when a trademark is used as a source indicator—that is, “as a mark.”
The Second Circuit concluded that the Jack Daniel’s case “forecloses MSCHF’s argument that Wavy Baby’s parodic message merits higher First Amendment scrutiny” because, even though the product is a parody, the Rogers test does not apply if the mark is also used as a source identifier. The Second Circuit drew a direct parallel between Wavy Baby and the punning dog toy in the Jack Daniel’s case, noting that in both cases the infringing product evoked the protected trademark and trade dress of the target to benefit from the “good will” developed by the source brand. Hence, the Court held that the district court did not err in applying the traditional likelihood-of-confusion analysis rather than the speech-protective Rogers test.
Practice Note: An alleged infringer of a trademark may claim that its product is artistic expression to trigger the heightened First Amendment protections offered by filters such as the Rogers test. However, after Jack Daniel’s, courts are more likely to regard such defenses with skepticism unless the allegedly infringing work falls into a more canonical category of artistic expression such as a film, television show, song or video game.