Laugh It Off: A Guide to Parody Under U.S. Trademark Law


Imagine poking fun at a famous brand or logo and getting away with it. In the United States, it’s not only possible, but can also be a recognized form of artistic expression known as trademark parody. Trademark parodies are a form of humorous or satirical commentary that uses a well-known trademark in a playful or critical manner. But typically, the target of that humor or satire is not amused.  Companies invest a lot of time, effort, creativity, and resources into building their brands and creating positive associations with their trademarks. Thus, if a famous brand owner believes that the use of its trademark by a third party may damage its reputation, the company could take legal action against a parody mark to protect its image and trademark rights.

In this post, we will explore what constitutes a trademark parody and when it crosses the line of trademark infringement or dilution (which occurs when the recognition of a distinctive trademark is weakened due to unauthorized use by others).

  1. What constitutes a trademark parody?

    A trademark parody is a work that uses an existing brand or logo (typically famous or well-known) in a satirical or humorous way in order to comment on or criticize the original brand. Furthermore, a trademark parody attempts to strike a balance by, on one hand, incorporating sufficient elements of the original brand so the public recognizes it is imitating that famous brand and, on the other hand, including sufficient elements of satire, humor, or criticism so the public understands the parody is commenting on the original brand, rather than forming an affiliation between the two. Owning a trademark registration cannot prevent others from criticizing or commenting on a brand, but there are limitations to trademark parody protection.

  2. When does a trademark parody become trademark infringement or dilution?

    While there is no clear-cut answer, courts typically consider a number of factors when determining whether a parody constitutes trademark infringement or dilution or whether it is protected free speech under the First Amendment. Some of those factors include:

    1. Use of distinctive elements: If the trademark parody uses distinctive elements from the original brand in a way that wrongly suggests an association with the mark or dilutes the famous mark’s distinctiveness, the parody could be considered trademark infringement or dilution.
    2. Commentary or criticism: If the parody is used to criticize or comment on the original brand or its owner, it may be protected speech under the First Amendment. Notably, parodies used in connection with commercial products or services for financial gain are given less latitude than those used in connection with purely expressive works.
    3. Commercial use: As noted above, if the parody is used for commercial purposes, it may be considered trademark infringement or dilution.
    4. Likelihood of confusion: If the parody is likely to cause consumer confusion as to where the goods or services originate (as in, whether the source of the products or services is the original brand or the parody spin-off), the owner of the original trademark could have a viable claim for trademark infringement.
    5. Good faith: If the primary intent of the parody is to poke fun at or criticize the original brand and is done in good faith, meaning it does not intend to cause consumer confusion or deceive the public in any way, then it may be protected by the First Amendment.

    Ultimately, a court will make the determination as to whether a parody constitutes trademark infringement or dilution upon careful review of the facts and circumstances specific to each case.

  3. What are other limitations of parody protection?

    Under United States law, the fair use doctrine allows for the use of a trademark in a parody if it is used for commentary, criticism, new reporting, teaching, or research, even if it would otherwise be considered trademark infringement. However, as discussed above, the parody must transform the original trademark by adding additional elements that help differentiate it from the original brand and make clear it is intended as a parody, rather than a copycat brand. If the parody simply uses the targeted mark in its entirety for its original intended purpose, this could be viewed as trademark infringement.

Trademark parodies can be a lot like walking on a tightrope – one wrong move, and you’ll fall into a pit of legal trouble. So, while parodies can be a great way to convey a message or poke fun at a brand, just make sure you don’t step on any toes (or trademarks) along the way. Remember, when in doubt, consult an intellectual property lawyer before adopting a trademark, even a parody one.

The material contained in this communication is informational, general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. The material contained in this communication should not be relied upon or used without consulting a lawyer to consider your specific circumstances. This communication was published on the date specified and may not include any changes in the topics, laws, rules or regulations covered. Receipt of this communication does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In some jurisdictions, this communication may be considered attorney advertising.


About the Author: Susan V. Mazurek

Susan Mazurek shares experienced insight with clients seeking to protect their valuable intellectual property portfolios. Whether you’re filing, prosecuting or maintaining global trademarks, Susan is prepared to help businesses of any size in every industry. Susan has international firm experience in trademark and patent protection, as she’s managed portfolios for companies — from small businesses to multibillion-dollar organizations — in industries including beauty/cosmetics, music distribution, cannabis/hemp, restaurants, ridesharing, chemical manufacturing, paints/coatings, pesticides/fungicides, power transmission equipment manufacturing, customer relationship management and cloud-based software.

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