There’s a ripoff happening online that’s caught my attention this afternoon.
David Rees is a humorist best known for creating cutting, heady, sarcastic comics using clip art and simple speech bubbles. Highlights of his work include My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable, My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable, and the excellent Get Your War On, now available as a complete anthology book.
Get Your War On highlighted the mass hysteria and empty logic surrounding the US “War on Terror,” and ran from the beginning of the Afghanistan invasion through the end of the Bush presidency. The comic prominently features two characters who are never given a name, but are sometimes referred to as “accounts payable” and “accounts receivable.” A sample comic:
Apparently GYWO made a lasting impression on an employee or ad agency contractor over at fruit smoothie enterprise Jamba Juice, as the company featured the two characters on a recent advertisement for a “Cubicle Picnic” contest (these are stills from a flash video which runs when the website starts up):
Goes without saying, but Rees was not to happy with his anti-corporate comic being used as a blatant, “viral,” corporate shill. On his blog he is now asking for a boycott of Jamba Juice, railing on the comic in general, noting the use of the exact same word balloons, insulting Jamba Juice drinkers, and ending with this remark:
Whoever made this ad is probably a 22 year-old “creative” at some ad agency in Tech Valley, CA. Way to think outside the box, sonny. Have fun snorting cocaine at the nightclub you go to with your friends who work at Twitter or wherever. And no, Adult Swim will NOT buy your stupid cartoon you’re developing with your housemates about four guys who work at an ad agency but are secretly lobsters.
Goddamn, I need to get Code Pink on the case about this. I’ll take this shit to the Supreme Court and live-blog my own lawsuit. Judge Sotomayor better side with me.
BOYCOTT JAMBA JUICE!
JUICE SUCKS, DRINK WINE
Were the two of Rees’ own creation this would be an open and shut copyright case. The tricky part is, the clip art characters are in the public domain. (At least according to Rees in his post; I’ve yet to verify that.) Even so, copyright law does permit one to claim ownership of original creative contributions to existing public domain works – like the layout of an anthology of public domain art or the text Rees adds to the speech bubbles in GYWO. But is a particular design of a speech bubble enough? Should it be? Any IP nerd will quickly tell you an “idea” alone is not protected; but while the idea of doing a comic based on a depressing, stale office environment using public domain clip art cannot be protected under US copyright, has this crossed over from being the “idea” of a GYWO-like comic to a cognizable claim of infringement? Could you, or should you, be able to claim that while Rees can’t claim copyright infringement from use of a public domain work, he should be able to claim it when Jamba uses the same two public domain works in the same context?
I’m rarely (maybe never) one to advocate an expansion of intellectual property law, and I’m trying very hard to imagine how I would feel if Rees ripped on Jamba Juice instead of the other way around, but I feel as though the law should provide remedy for this sort of shameless ripoff.
Perhaps the best remedy is found under trademark. Trademark law is a means of helping the public identify the origin of goods, allowing manufacturers to protect their brand identities against other market participants creating stopping confusingly similar products. In short, trademark law is why I can’t go into my kitchen, develop a new soda, call it “Coca-Cola” (or “Coce-Kola”), and start selling it in stores. Within the field of trademark law is a term of art – trade dress – to reference protections provided over layout, packaging, and other unique characteristics of a product which, if copied, can cause confusion in the marketplace even if the copier didn’t use the name directly. In other words, trade dress is why I can’t go into my kitchen, develop a new soda, put it in a red can with cursive white script in the same layout as a Coke can, and start selling it in stores.
Trade dress may provide a remedy here. Perhaps Rees can claim that the layout of the figures and use of the speech bubbles are sufficient design characteristics for a trade dress claim. As John Hodgman noted, “many will presume [Rees] made these ads and is getting paid. Not True.” That said, there is no doubt David Rees fans would be upset if he started making ads for a company like Jamba Juice, and to the extent this leads fans to believe that the confusion is causing harm to Rees’s GYWO brand. This also helps me distinguish this case from others where I might be okay with someone ripping on another company’s design: this is not done for commentary, parody, or other fair uses, and in doing this ripoff Rees will be falsely depicted as endorsing this activity. If trademark can be said to further the public interest of distinguishing goods, while still providing First Amendment protections critical to a public discourse, a use like this – which confuses the origin of the comic and adds nothing meritorious to the public good – seems a ripe candidate for a trademark claim.
Regardless of whether courts find a cause of action in what Jamba Juice did, whoever came up with this add should be fired. This is the sort of activity which gets a company on shame-worthy blogs like You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice, and causes people to distrust, boycott, or even sue a company. I can’t find the agency responsible for this ad, but in digging around I found this YouTube video of Jamba Juice’s ad agent describing the Cubicle Picnic promotion. Be it him or some other viral marketing lackey, this is plagiarism, and even if the law does not recognize fault with that the creative industry most certainly does.
Update: James Urbaniak, in addition to being the voice of Dr. Venture on the Venture Brothers, has taken up arms in this particular fight. As his LJ post notes, the organization responsible for this ripoff ad is LA agency Neighbor. From his post:
Their unintentionally hilarious website positions themselves as paragons of crunchy, earthy, green, do-gooder, one-world decency. According to their manifesto: “You get conscious, inspired, ethical, engaged, genuine, positive and purpose-driven work that grows your business and your people all the while making the world a better place.” Ad man, heal thyself.
Heal thyself indeed.
Update 2 (21 June): Thank you all for the comments, emails, and especially for the budding discourse. This story has clearly grown beyond this humble little blog. For much more coverage, see BoingBoing, Consumerist, Fast Company, Brand Flakes for Breakfast, Comics Alliance, and Timothy Buckwalter’s blog. I hope to do some more research into this trademark and copyright question and share what I find, but work keeps me busy during the week. Until then, I defer to the comments below and the links above for more discussion.
Due to the increased traffic, I should probably quickly (create and) state my commenting policy: I do moderate comments on the blog, but as long as it’s pertinent to the discussion I’ll post it. If you feel this is unfair let me know.
Also, a very warm thanks to John Hodgman and David Rees for their kind words and links.