When Whiskey Meets Dog Toys: A Legal Showdown on Parody and Trademark Infringement

Your pet might have been playing with your Whisky Bottle. Sounds interesting, no? Well, this dream could have been achieved and was in-fact well achieved until recently when the US Supreme Court passed a judgement that caught the attention of numerous people all over the world. This judgement came in the decision concerning Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and VIP Products’ poop-themed, chewy dog toy.

In this surprising legal battle that blends the worlds of whiskey and dog toys, the United States Supreme Court recently handed down a unanimous decision favouring Jack Daniel’s in a trademark infringement dispute against VIP Products. The case centred around a poop-themed chewy dog toy produced by VIP Products, which bore a striking resemblance to Jack Daniel’s iconic Tennessee Whiskey bottle. Not only did the dog toy resemble the Jack Daniel’s Whiskey bottle shape, but it also resembled certain descriptive words, phrases and graphics listed on the Whiskey bottle with just a minor change to dogify the words to fit the context of a dog toy. In the case, Justice Elena Kagan, in her opinion, delved into the intersection of trademark law, parody, and First Amendment rights, making for a fascinating legal showdown.

Setting the Stage:

In this legal battle, Jack Daniel’s, known for its distinctive bottle shape and various trademarked elements, claimed that VIP Products’ dog toy infringed upon its trademark and trade dress rights, as well as diluted its brand by associating its whiskey with canine waste (poop-waste). This is not the first time VIP Products has engaged in the business of selling toys involving taking inspiration from well-known products of other companies They are infamous for such toys and have had toys associated with the infamous Corona beer bottle and have named it Cataroma, Johnnie Walker’s alcohol and named it Doggie Walker etc among several such other parodies. In this context, Jack Daniel’s argued that it has been a long practice for VIP to capitalise and profit off the excuse of parody by using the goodwill established by several brands and selling toys supposedly ‘inspired’ by them. VIP Products, however, argued that the toy was an expressive work deserving of protection under the Rogers test, a threshold established by the Second Circuit to safeguard First Amendment interests in trademark cases. They further contended that the toy’s parody nature constituted fair use, exempting it from dilution claims.

At this juncture, one might think what First Amendment interests and the Roger test actually are because well, one cannot be expected to know all aspects of the US law.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, including expressive works. It protects individuals’ rights to express themselves and their opinions without government interference. However, trademark law aims to protect consumers from confusion and ensure that trademarks are used as indicators of the source of goods or services. To tackle this, the roger test was introduced. The Roger’s test is a legal framework established by the Supreme Court in the case Rogers v. Grimaldi (1989)[1]. It provides guidance on the application of trademark law in cases involving expressive works, such as books, movies, or artistic creations, where the use of a trademark may be necessary for artistic or expressive purposes and requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the alleged infringement is intentionally misleading and lacks any expressive value.

Trademark as a Source Identifier:

The US trademark law establishes that unauthorised use of a trademark that creates a likelihood of confusion[2] among consumers is expressly prohibited. In this specific case, the Supreme Court countered VIP Products’ argument, asserting that the Rogers test does not apply when an alleged infringer uses a trademark to designate the source of their own goods. This means that if the accused infringer is using a trademark as a source identifier for their own products or services, rather than as part of an expressive work, the Rogers test does not come into play.

The court held that, the Rogers test is applicable only to cases where trademarks are used for expressive purposes and not as source identifiers. Courts have consistently applied the Rogers test in cases where trademarks are used in a non-source-identifying way, such as parodies or artistic works However, when trademarks are used as trademarks to designate source, the Rogers test does not apply, and likelihood-of-confusion analysis is conducted. The primary mission of trademark law is to prevent confusion about the source of goods, and using trademarks as source identifiers is the core concern. Expressive content alone does not automatically qualify for Rogers’ protection; trademarks can have expressive content while still functioning as source identifiers. The expansion of the Rogers test to encompass all expressive content would conflict with longstanding views of trademark law. Trademark rights and the First Amendment can coexist when trademarks are used as source identifiers to protect consumers from confusion.

In this case, VIP Products was claiming trademark and trade dress rights in its own product, the dog toy. The Supreme Court determined that the dog toy was not an expressive work, and therefore, the Rogers test was not applicable. Instead, the focus shifted to whether there was a likelihood of consumer confusion about the source of the goods.

Unravelling the Parody Argument:

Delving into the concept of parody, the Court further reasoned that the exclusion [3] in the Lanham Act (essentially the US Trademarks Act), shielding the use of a mark for parody, criticism, or commentary, does not apply when the allegedly infringing mark is itself used as a designation of source for its own goods or services. In other words, if the mark is not solely a parody, criticism, or commentary but is also employed to identify the source of the infringer’s own products or services, the exclusion does not offer protection. A parody must be recognizable and create contrasts to convey its message effectively and is less likely to cause confusion. Further it was also held that, the non-commercial exclusion of the Lanham Act could not include every parody in it, a trademark use could be a parody but still be exploited commercially and be used as a source identifier.

The Supreme Court’s Verdict:

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Jack Daniel’s, overturning the Ninth Circuit judgment in favour of VIP Products. The case was remanded to the lower court to determine whether a likelihood of confusion existed among consumers regarding the source of the goods.

What if such a case happened in India?

In the Indian legal framework, trademark infringement cases involving parody have witnessed the recognition and approval of parody as a defence. The jurisprudence in this discourse has essentially involved from judicial decisions. Under the provisions of the Trademark Act, section 29 (4) a trademark is infringed if the registered trademark has a reputation in India, and the unauthorized use of the mark without valid reason unfairly exploits or damages the distinctive nature or reputation of the registered trademark. There is a debate as to whether parody would fall under fair use of a trademark in India.

A notable case illustrating this stance is the TATA[4] case, where the world-famous corporation, filed a petition for defamation and trademark infringement against Greenpeace, an environmental organization. Greenpeace defended itself by invoking the parody defence, asserting that the use of the TATA logo in their online game, “Tata Vs Turtles,” was intended to draw attention to the environmental impact of Tata’s proposed port construction. The Delhi High Court in this case examined a potential trademark infringement and interpreted Section 29 (4) of the Trademarks Act of 1999. The court concluded that the defendants were not involved in a similar or competitive business to the plaintiff, thus not exploiting the trademark. The court found Greenpeace India’s argument valid, stating that trademarks can be used for reasonable comment, ridicule, and parody. Citing a UK Court of Appeal case[5], the court held that unless the disparagement in a comparative advertisement is proven wrong and misleading, individuals and competitors should be free to express their honest beliefs. The court determined that Greenpeace India used the trademarks to draw attention to Tata’s activities and express concern, which was a justified cause and not trademark infringement. The court also held that, since Greenpeace was involved in a humorous game to bring light to TATA’s actions, their actions were not only hyperbolic but also were a parody and should be protected to secure one’s freedom of expression.

In the author’s opinion, this legal stance essentially establishes that where defences against intellectual property infringement exist to protect parodists and satirists, as long as the original work is not commercially exploited or mutilated. The TATA case reinforces the importance of striking a balance between trademark protection and the right to express social criticism through parody in the Indian legal landscape. However, restrictions are placed on this defence that is essentially put forth to secure one’s fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression under the Indian constitution. The TATA case provided that the use of parody involving a registered trademark will only be considered acceptable as long as it serves as a reasonable comment, aiming to bring attention to the actions of the trademark owner. If the trademark is employed within the context any medium with the purpose of raising awareness, it is not regarded as defamatory. However, if a false parody is presented just to exploit the trademark owner’s goodwill to earn profits, it can not be sustained.

Significance of the Jack Daniels Case –

This decision by the US Supreme Court has gained global attention, particularly from brands like Jack Daniel’s, due to valid reasons. These brands invest significant time and resources in developing their trademarks and brand identity. Unauthorized parodies can blur the line between protected parody and infringement, potentially diluting the brand’s identity and confusing consumers. Trademarks represent goodwill and reputation, and unauthorized parodies can harm the brand’s image and consumer trust. Consumer confusion is a crucial issue, as parodies may be mistaken for official brand products, causing financial loss and reputational damage. Unregulated parodies can also hinder market differentiation and weaken a brand’s competitive edge. Brands like Jack Daniel’s worry that a lenient approach to parody protection could undermine their intellectual property rights and lead to unauthorized use. Their concerns are justified, as they aim to protect their brand, maintain goodwill, prevent confusion, differentiate themselves, and uphold intellectual property laws.


The Jack Daniel’s trademark dispute saga offers an intriguing exploration of the interplay between trademark law, parody, and First Amendment rights. This case highlights the importance of trademarks as source identifiers and their role in protecting brand integrity and consumer interests. The Supreme Court’s decision serves as a reminder that even in the realm of expressive works and parodies, trademarks retain their significance and require careful consideration in the face of potential confusion. As the legal battle continues in the lower courts of the US, the outcome will shape the landscape of trademark protection and expressive works for years to come.

[1] Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989)

[2] Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 1114 (1) (a) and 1125 (a) (1))

[3] Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1125)

[4] TATA Sons Ltd. v. Greenpeace International & Anr, 178 (2011) DLT 705, para 40-44.

[5] Boehringer Ingelheim Ltd and others v. VetPlus Ltd., [2007] EWCA Civ 583

Amisha Mittal


Amisha Mittal is a final-year law student pursuing a BA. LLB. (Hons) at Jindal Global Law School, Haryana. Her interest areas align with Intellectual Property Law, Competition law and other technology-related laws. She shares a passion for research and writing and with a strong interest in academia, she aspires to contribute to the legal scholarship in these areas.

About Amisha Mittal 13 Articles
Amisha Mittal is a final-year law student pursuing a BA. LLB. (Hons) at Jindal Global Law School, Haryana. Her interest areas align with Intellectual Property Law, Competition law and other technology related laws. She shares a passion for research and writing and with a strong interest in academia, she aspires to contribute to the legal scholarship in these areas.

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