In University of Alabama v New Life Art, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals resolved a portion of a long standing dispute over the protection afforded authentic reproductions of college uniforms. A painter made paintings (and calendars) accurately depicting University of Alabama games. For many years this practice was unlicensed, but done with the knowledge of the UofA. Later, the painter began using the paintings he created on mugs, towels, t shirts and so on. Eventually the University of Alabama required use of accurate depictions of the uniforms to be licensed, and the artist refused. Therein ensued litigation, now in its 7th year.
The 11th Circuit held that “An artistically expressive use of a trademark will not violate the Lanham Act “unless the use of the mark has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless it explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”
Thus the paintings were held to be protected under the implied fair use rights under the 1st Amendment, even though they depicted the uniform colors. The other issues were remanded as the record had not been developed on them (somewhat surprising after 7 years of litigation!)
It should be noted that the University had licensing agreements with the artist in some respects (they gave him press credentials to access games and allowed him to create a painting live on air at one point – without however licensing his subsequent sales of reproductions of those paintings). The terms in the license agreement were very broad, but not broad enough to cover the colors on the uniforms when shown on a uniform.
This case demonstrates that the cost of fair use determinations is substantial, and the findings can be somewhat limiting – indeed, it is not clear the artist will prevail on the other claims – he apparently did not raise fair use on appeal as to them, and there is an argument that the licensing agreements he had signed did cover those items.
Use of an aggressive trademark holders marks, even trade dress, without a license, and even with a fair body of case law finding fair use, can be very risky.