Over the past few years, we have seen numerous instances of companies protecting their trademarks in creative ways – approaches that leverage humor and the brands themselves in order to achieve an acceptable legal outcome while simultaneously promoting the company and its brands, thus minimizing the risk of public relations blowback. In this “Creative Trademark Enforcement” series of blog posts, I’ll be exploring some of the more interesting takes on this approach, from singing lawyers to town criers and beyond. In Part I of the series, I discussed VELCRO® Brand’s “Don’t Say Velcro” video, in which a group of lawyers literally sing and dance to stave off genericide. In Part II, I explored Netflix’s response to an unauthorized “pop-up bar” based on its Stranger Things series. This time, we venture south of the Mason-Dixon line to take a look at how southern hospitality works in the trademark demand letter context.
Broken Piano for President
In 2012, author Patrick Wensink published a novel, Broken Piano for President, which featured a cover that took considerable inspiration from the well-known JACK DANIEL’S® whisky label:
Even a cursory glance reveals numerous similarities, including a white-on-black print, identical border ornamentation, a front-and-center “seal” surrounded by similar scrollwork, an alcohol content listing, and much more, such that anyone familiar with the JACK DANIEL’S® label would immediately understand the reference.
Jack Daniel’s Asks Politely
Jack Daniel’s, concerned about the similarity, sent a demand letter to Mr. Wensink. However, instead of the aggressive, humorless screed you might expect, the letter – penned by in-house Senior Attorney Christy Susman – took a friendly and almost didactic approach. “We are certainly flattered by your affection for the brand,” she began, but “if we allow uses like this one, we run the very real risk that our trademark will be weakened.” As a proposed resolution, Attorney Susman continued, “because you are a Louisville ‘neighbor’ and fan of the brand, we simply request that you change the cover design when the book is reprinted.”
As with the Netflix letter, the demand went viral, and was lauded for being “exceedingly polite,” with more than one publication crowning it the nicest cease-and-desist letter of all time. Perhaps even nicer than was intended, as Forbes reported that Mr. Wensink’s website hits increased 1,000-fold over three days, presumably leading to increased sales for Broken Piano for President.
For the curious, here’s the revised cover for Broken Piano for President:
At the bottom of the revised cover is a book blurb from writer Gary Shteyngart: “I like Patrick Wensink’s work so much my heart had to issue its own cease-and-desist order.” The nicest demand letter of all time indeed.
You can see a full copy of the Jack Daniel’s letter below:
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