In response to the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in Jack Daniel’s, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reconsidered its 2022 decision in Punchbowl v. AJ Press and determined that Jack Daniel’s reset prior Ninth Circuit precedents regarding the interaction of First Amendment rights and the Lanham Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed its original decision and remanded the case to the district court to conduct a likelihood of confusion analysis under Lanham Act precedent. Punchbowl, Inc. v. AJ Press, LLC, Case No. 21-55881 (9th Cir. Jan. 12, 2024) (Owens, Bress, Fitzwater, JJ.)
The Ninth Circuit had previously held that despite use of the PUNCHBOWL trademark for a news service covering politics, AJ Press was not subject to liability under the Lanham Act. The PUNCHBOWL mark was registered by Punchbowl, Inc., a website specializing in online communications “with a focus on celebrations, holidays, events and memory making.” The Ninth Circuit’s original decision was based on the Court’s understanding of the Rogers test, which protected creative use of trademarks if the defendant could “make a threshold legal showing that its allegedly infringing use is part of an expressive work protected by the First Amendment.” This test was easily met if the artistic relevance of the trademark’s use was “above zero.” Shortly after the Ninth Circuit issued its initial decision, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Jack Daniel’s Properties v. VIP Products, a case that addressed the same basic underlying precedent.
In its Jack Daniel’s decision, the Supreme Court held that the Rogers test exception to the Lanham Act did not apply when the expressive mark was used as a mark. The Supreme Court therefore drew a line between VIP’s use of “Bad Spaniels,” a direct play on “Jack Daniel’s” that was an expressive use of a mark as a mark, and use of a mark that was expressive but not used as a trademark. The Supreme Court’s ruling prompted the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its original decision in Punchbowl.
In its new decision, the Ninth Circuit, applying the rule of Jack Daniel’s, held that the Rogers test did not apply and that AJ Press’s use of the mark “Punchbowl” was not excepted from the Lanham Act as protected First Amendment expression. Rather, AJ Press’s use of “Punchbowl” was as a mark identifying its news service.
The Ninth Circuit stressed that this was not an automatic victory for Punchbowl, however. The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court on remand to proceed with a likelihood-of-confusion analysis test under the Lanham Act – an analysis that would consider many of the factors (such as the expressive nature of the trademark’s use) that had been relevant to the application of the Rogers test.