At the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, one side will be talking about its iconic liquor bottle as its valued trademark. The other side will be talking about parody and free expression. And both will be talking about dog poop.
Jack Daniel’s, the famous Tennessee whiskey company, is trying to stop production and marketing of a chewy dog toy called Bad Spaniels. The toy, shaped and decorated like a Jack Daniel’s bottle, features a spaniel and the name “Bad Spaniels” on the label instead of the iconic Jack Daniel’s name. And instead of promising 40% alcohol by volume, it promises “43% poo by volume, 100% smelly.”
The vinyl bottle is part of a line of chewy dog toys, called Silly Squeakers, which parodies other famous brands and is manufactured by VIP products, the country’s second-largest dog toy manufacturer.
VIP’s owner, Stephen Sacra, says he got the idea for the Bad Spaniels parody when he was out for dinner and found himself staring at the back of a bar, and the iconic Jack Daniel’s bottle. On the spot, he took out his phone, called his graphics designer, “and I said, ‘I got two words for you: Bad Spaniels.’ “Within 48 hours, they had the draft design for a new toy that is now the company’s best-selling product in major stores across the country.
Jack Daniel’s whiskey is not amused. It has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to stop VIP from selling the Bad Spaniels toy. The Jack Daniel’s company argues that it licenses its trademark to preserve its reputation, for instance licensing various dog products, including leashes, dog collars and a dog treat jar. The company contends that the lower court was wrong to conclude that the Bad Spaniels dog toy was a “humorous” and “expressive” work and thus immune from claims that it infringed on Jack Daniel’s trademark.
If that ruling is allowed to stand, the company contends, anyone could use a famous trademark to sell sex toys, drinking games or marijuana bongs, while misleading customers and destroying billions of dollars in goodwill — all in the name of just having fun.