Tuesday, September 08, 2020

T-shirts as noncommercial speech (and an issue-spotter fact pattern)

Cornette v. Graver, 2020 WL 4059589, No. 19-cv-219 (W.D. Pa. Jul. 20, 2020)

Cornette is a professional wrestling commentator and “personality” who sued defendants for infringing his trademark rights and right of publicity by selling disparaging t-shirts bearing his name and likeness. The court denied a TRO on First Amendment and related grounds.  

Among other things, Cornette currently hosts two popular wrestling-themed podcasts. His podcast videos on YouTube use “thumbnail images that depict people he discusses in each segment,” and he doesn’t seek permission from those people first.  He sells merchandise on his website, including t-shirt sales in 2019 of approximately $40,000 (about 15% of merchandise revenue). One such shirt uses Cornette’s catchphrase or personal motto: “Thank you, Fuck you, Bye.”

Graver is a professional wrestler and tattoo artist, who wrestles under the ring name of “G-Raver.”  He does “deathmatch” wrestling, which involves “hitting each other with improvised weapons, such as light tubes, barbed wire, thumbtacks, panes of glass, and weed whackers, among other things; Graver’s signature weapons are tattoo needles.” Blood and injury routinely accompany such matches. Cornette is a vocal opponent of deathmatch wrestling because of the risk of injury to imitators.

In one video that Cornette retweeted, “Graver lacerated an artery in his arm and nearly bled to death as a result of his injury.” Cornette commented, inter alia, that “if fans were lucky[, the organizers] probably stopped the show so everyone could watch [Graver] bleed out.” Graver objected. Cornette replied that Graver and his opponent were both “stupid dumb fucks doing something stupid [you] shouldn’t have been doing.” Cornette then dubbed Graver “Grover”—a reference to the Sesame Street character—created a thumbnail of Graver as Grover for his podcast videos, and used the thumbnail for an animated game of Whack-A-Mole.

Graver then used the Indy Connection, “a counterculture e-commerce store that sells merchandise such as t-shirts, key chains, dolls, stickers, and other similar items for the wrestling and entertainment industries,” where he has a storefront, to respond. One of his friends got a graphic artist, Shaygan, to create “parody” or “caricature” images of Cornette with his “mouth and eyes crossed out in red and [with] tattoo needles sticking out of his head.” The T-shirt added “Fuck Jim Cornette” around the image, and there were some other modifications (we will mainly discuss the FJC shirt; there’s also a shirt known as the MF shirt); the artist didn’t like the modifications and there was a falling-out. The artist then executed a contract with Cornette granting Cornette a nonexclusive license to use the images he created. [Further details omitted, but would definitely add issue spotting detail.]

Individual defendant Lombardo (who also played a role in some of the events above) added another shirt, which “removed the tattoo needles, duct tape, Xs, and blood, replaced them with clown makeup, stubble, and a prop red, ball nose — depicting Cornette as a clown—and added the word ‘Clownette.’” He did this because he “believed that the dispute between Graver, The Indy Connection, and Cornette was ‘just so asinine, it had become a circus upon itself, [so] now [it was] just time to bring in the clowns’” and he believed that Cornette was a clown. 

Lombardo also registered the domain name www.fuckjimcornette.com and used it to redirect to the page on which the Indy Connection sold the FJC shirt. The Indy Connection applied to register a trademark on the phrase “Fuck Jim Cornette,” to be used for clothing. The PTO rejected the application and the Indy Connection abandoned it. “Lombardo never approached Cornette or Cornette’s counsel with an offer to sell the domain name ..., nor did Lombardo intend to register the domain name in an effort to hold it hostage over Cornette.”

After the FJC shirt had been available for a day or two, Cornette objected to Shopify, which hosts The Indy Connection, that the shirt was an unauthorized use of his name and likeness and Shopify removed the (page offering the) shirt. The Indy Connection tried again, describing the FJC Shirt as a “Plain Black Tee”; though the image was a plain black t-shirt, any purchasers would receive the FJC Shirt. Cornette again complained and Shopify again removed the page.

Cornette then (before receiving the license from Shaygan) began selling copies of the FJC shirt on his own website because “if somebody is going to be selling a shirt with my name and face on it, and money is going somewhere, it should come to me and/or a good cause” because he “couldn’t really sell it as a serious piece of merchandise.” You might think this could in theory be important to the confusion analysis, but the court (rightly) doesn’t care. Many years ago, I wrote (with Bruce Keller) about this scenario; just as with copyright, a trademark owner can’t increase its rights by creating its own critical/parodic merchandise.

After Cornette sued, The Indy Connection issued a press release detailing its version of the events leading up to the lawsuit and stating that it had released the FJC and MF shirts to depict an “alternative commentary” on Cornette’s dispute with Graver. It then began selling the Clownette shirt; if potential purchasers accessed www.clownette.com, they’d get redirected to the Indy Connection site. The Indy Connection made approximately $1,500 in profit from sales of the shirts. At least 32 websites currently offer knockoff versions.

The Indy Connection didn’t engage in active marketing of the shirts; didn’t intend to market to Cornette’s fans but to fans of deathmatch wrestling; and “actively did not want Cornette’s fans to purchase the Shirts.” There was no evidence of confusion about origin or endorsement in the record. Cornette also had no evidence of sales diversion.

Trademark infringement: Cornette has no registration for his name, “Clownette,” or “Fuck Jim Cornette,” so he proceeded under §43(a)(1)(A) (and state trademark law, of which no more need be said).

Despite the fact that courts regularly apply the trademark provisions of the Lanham Act to religious orders, and occasionally to political parties (United We Stand), precedent outside those cases often maintains that “the Lanham Act regulates only commercial speech.” The court here thus decided that its first task was to determine whether the challenged activity was commercial speech.

First, the shirts are speech because they convey a message. (The better question isn’t whether the shirts are speech, but whether the cause of action is one that regulates speech. If a Pennsylvania regulator found that the shirts—or even the ink used to print the images on the shirts—were impregnated with a carcinogenic chemical and sought to remove them from the market, it would be completely irrelevant that the shirts bore speech. Trademark law inherently regulates speech because it targets the communicative meaning of symbols, not their noncommunicative effects in the world.)

But the shirts weren’t commercial speech, that is, “speech that does no more than propose a commercial transaction”—roughly speaking, an ad.  Cornette argued that (1) Graver was selling products, (2) advertising them, and (3) had an economic motivation for the speech, but that was wordplay. An ad touts a product other than itself; the shirts didn’t but were instead the product being sold, like a subscription to the New York Times.

Unfortunately, instead of saying this clearly, the court reasoned that the key problem was that Graver lacked an economic motive for selling the shirts. “[T]o have an economic motivation for purposes of commercial speech, the speaker must speak substantially from economic motivation…. Speech that is primarily motivated by political, religious, or ideological convictions, although it may benefit the speaker economically, may not meet the economic motivation factor, and therefore not be considered commercial speech.” Although Graver made about $200 from the shirts, “Cornette has not shown that it was likely the primary, or even a substantial, factor motivating those actions.”

Especially in an age of (1) corporate personhood and (2) judicial direction not to question the sincerity of belief, this is an unworkable and dangerous standard; the “is the speech advertising something other than the speech itself” standard does the necessary work better. (Indeed, the adverbs tell you that something very squishy is going on: “substantially” from economic motivation and “primarily” noneconomic aren’t even opposites.) The example the court borrowed from the Fifth Circuit illustrates the problem quite well:

[A] woman operates a record store selling Christian rock music and tells her customers that they should buy Christian rock music because other forms of rock music are satanic.  Whether the Lanham Act applies to her conduct depends on her motivation: if she opened the bookstore because of a sincere religious belief that Christian rock must be made available to combat the evils of other rock music, the speech is likely noncommercial. Conversely, if she is agnostic and opened the store after taking a business class that informed her that a properly set up Christian rock store can be very profitable, the speech is likely commercial and therefore subject to the Lanham Act.

That’s ridiculous. The constraints on regulating her speech should come from falsity and materiality—a claim about satanic origins is not falsifiable. Not only does this example turn on religious “sincerity,” which the Supreme Court is probably right that we should not generally question, it also creates discrimination based on religious belief—the believer gets to say things in the marketplace, with commercial effect, that the nonbeliever doesn’t. If a pizza place opens up and says “we’re better than the pedophile pizza place down the block,” its owners’ sincere belief in Qanon should have nothing to do with whether they’ve violated the Lanham Act.

Obviously, the bad reasoning didn’t start with this court, but it’s distressing to see the reasoning here when it’s so unnecessary to the result.

As for the Indy Connection, it made about $1500, but the initial sale was to raise funds for Graver’s recovery, which was “arguably” an economic motivation, but “raising money for a good cause is not a traditional ‘economic motivation.’”

The court also said that the shirts didn’t refer to a specific product but instead expressed messages about Cornette. There’s a metaphysical issue here—trademark/right of publicity law is often willing to recognize a persona as a product or service that can be monetized—but that perhaps suggests the error of commoditizing a persona rather than a flaw in the commercial speech analysis. The record was “replete” with testimony that the shirts were intended to parody Cornette’s views.

As for Graver’s social media promotions of the shirts, this “was a natural method of getting word out about the message the Shirts conveyed; although that motivation may be economic also, Cornette has failed to show that it is likely that G-Raver promoted the Shirts substantially for economic reasons.” [Would have been better to apply the general rule that truthfully advertising First Amendment-protected content inherits the content's protection.] 

Because this was noncommercial speech, there was no likely success on the merits.

The court also did a traditional belt-and-suspenders: confusion wasn’t likely, even assuming that Cornette owned a valid mark in his name (or likeness; the court doesn’t have to get into the substantially more complicated question of whether Cornette could own a mark in any depiction of his face, see ETW v. Jireh). Dissimilarity was important. “Although G-Raver has used Cornette’s name and likeness, no consumer is likely to get the same overall impression from either: (1) a t-shirt with Cornette depicted as a clown—and called ‘Clownette;’ or (2) bloodied, gagged, and with tattoo needles in his forehead—with the words ‘Fuck Jim Cornette’ surrounding his image —as they would from a t-shirt with Cornette’s face or his face and the words ‘Thank you, Fuck you, Bye.’” So too with www.fuckjimcornette.com or www.clownette.com versus www.jimcornette.com.

Both “fuck” and “clown” were terms of contempt. Even though Cornette himself sold copies of the FJC shirt, that didn’t make it likely that consumers would see the shirt or the URL “and assume that Cornette endorses a t-shirt or website that expresses contempt for himself, or that Cornette is the source of such a website or t-shirt.”  For the same reasons, the court found that the products themselves were not highly related, which is a bit unusual.

Intent: intent to copy is not bad, only intent to confuse by copying. This and the lack of confusion evidence weighed for Graver, as did the intended audience. “Although both parties target their merchandise to wrestling fans, the record evidence demonstrates that they each target different sectors of the professional wrestling fandom.”

Trademark dilution: no. No commercial speech. Also, no fame. It was not enough to show a 40 year history in pro wrestling, 1.7 million podcast downloads and 100,000 to 125,000 YouTube views each month, and 160,000 followers on Twitter, without evidence about reach among the general American public.

There was also no blurring because of lack of similarity, lack of intent to associate (“G-Raver, although intending to reference Cornette in creating the Shirts, had no desire to be associated with him.”), and lack of actual association.  There was no tarnishment because tarnishment has to arise from “similarity” to the famous mark, and here the use was dissimilar.

ACPA: No. There was no bad faith. Defendants believed they were making a lawful parody; they were engaged in noncommercial speech. There was no evidence they intended to divert consumers via likely confusion, or to sell the domain names to Cornette.

Right of publicity:  Pennsylvania law bars “the unauthorized use of the name or likeness of a person for commercial or advertising purposes when that name or likeness has commercial value.” Under the statute, a “commercial or advertising purpose” is the public use of a person’s name or likeness “on or in connection with” selling or offering a product for sale, to promote or advertise products, or for fundraising. But if the use is through a “communications medium,” it is not a violation when: (1) the person appears as a member of the public and is not named or identified; (2) the use is associated with a news report; (3) the use is an expressive work; (4) the use is an original work of fine art; (5) the use is associated with announcing or promoting a news report, expressive work, or work of fine art; or (6) the use is associated with identifying the person as the creator of a work. [Pause for standard agonized reminder that ads are expressive works, according to both First Amendment and copyright law.]

Under the statute, a “communications medium” includes, but is not limited to, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, telephone, radio and television broadcasts, digital communications networks, audiovisual works, and global communications networks. [Query: what violation of the right of publicity could occur without use of a communications medium? Which one of the listed exceptiosn could occur without the use of a communications medium? The presence of this unnecessary verbiage signals that weird epicycles are necessary to make the right of publicity seem constitutionally ok.]

While Cornette was likely to be able to show that his name and likeness had commercial value, the challenged uses (just the shirts, not the social media) fell within the statutory exceptions. “Cornette’s name and likeness both appear on the Shirts, which are a product, and G-Raver’s use facially falls under [the law’s] scope because Cornette’s name and likeness are ‘on ... a product.’” But the shirts were expressive works and the use was through a communications medium.

Pennsylvania law defines an “expressive work” as a “literary, dramatic, fictional, historical, audiovisual, or musical work regardless of the communications medium by which it is exhibited, displayed, performed, or transmitted, other than when used for a commercial or advertising purpose.” Although shirts weren’t listed, they were still included in the exception. [It would be better to say that images/pictorial works are covered, not “shirts,” though I have to say I’d be surprised if the omission of pictorial works wasn’t intentional.]

According to Mr. Justice Merriam-Webster, a “work” is “something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill,” or “something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort.” The shirts “and the images used in their creation” were “works” under this definition. And they were expressive. “[O]n closer inspection” these were “fictional” works because fiction is “something invented by the imagination,” and the image of a bloodied and gagged Cornette, with tattoo needles sticking out of his forehead was “invented by [Graver’s] imagination” as a way to get back at Cornette for his comments about Graver, as was Lombardo’s vision of Cornette as a clown. [So I guess images that read as realistic are not covered by the exception, which is a hell of a content-based exception.]

And the shirts are a “communications medium” because the law “contemplates exceptions from liability for right of publicity violations when the use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness communicates a message. Clothing is often used to convey a message, such as when protesting government policy, and the First Amendment protects this expression.” Indeed, it would be nonsensical to exclude shirts, because then “had G-Raver taken out a full-page advertisement in a newspaper with the images used for any of the Shirts, they would not have violated Cornette’s right of publicity, but the use of t-shirts would be prohibited.”

Even if the statutory exception didn’t exist, the shirts would be protected by the First Amendment as transformative use that don’t merely supersede shirts with Cornette’s face on them.

And finally, Cornette failed to show irreparable harm. There’s no presumption of irreparable harm in Lanham Act cases, or right of publicity claims. Nor can a plaintiff establish irreparable harm on the basis of “bald and conclusory statements.” Harm to reputation may be irreparable, but still has to be shown. Cornette argued that the absence of an injunction would lead to a free-for-all on his name and likeness, but only within the First Amendment’s protections. “Any harm caused to Cornette’s brand through parodies or satires that fall within the First Amendment are not harms the legal system can address.”

Cornette’s sale of knockoff FJC shirts did finally come in: “If the Shirts were so objectionable to Cornette, he likely would not have sold them on his website, and the fact that he did also indicates that the balance of the equities weighs against an injunction.” And the public interest in free expression outweighed the public interest in protection of trademarks and the right of publicity, “particularly when the party aggrieved by alleged infringement has failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits or that irreparable harm is likely.”

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