Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer, IP Innovation Clinic Fellow, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
How similar is too similar? Television producers need to be careful to ensure that they are not mimicking real-life businesses too closely to offer their fictitious shows some realism. According to The Wrap, AMC Networks and Sony Pictures, the production companies behind Better Call Saul, are being sued for trademark and trade dress infringement by Liberty Tax. The tax company claims that the producers and film studios “decided not to be original at all” and “rip off” of its trademark which has been in use for over 25 years.
The episode in question (Season 6, Episode 2) portrays a business called “Sweet Liberty Tax Services,” shown below. The fictitious business is run by Betsy and Craig Kettleman, who embezzle money by taking advantage of their clients who do not understand the tax system. The real-life tax company “Liberty Tax” claims that the show copied its logo and style, including the Statue of Liberty, which is a frequent identifier of the company.
The entertainment industry is no stranger to trademark infringement issues. Audiovisual professionals know to be especially careful whenever trademarks are displayed on screens. However, production teams can defend their works against claims of trademark infringement. Among these avenues are demonstrating that the trademarks are being used in an “indicative manner” or a “mere accessory,” instead of for identifying goods and services. Camerawork plays an important role in achieving that the trademarks blend into the scene’s overall ambience. For example, to mitigate trademark infringement risks, directors may take active measures to prevent fixed close-ups or give too much screen time to one particular trademark over another.
All that said, a trademark does not necessarily have to be displayed visually to trigger a trademark infringement lawsuit. After the release of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” in 2018, Netflix was sued by Chooseco, a children’s book publisher known for their ‘game books’ titled Choose Your Own Adventure. As an interactive film, Bandersnatch viewers could take control and make decision for the protagonist, Stefan Butler, as he navigates a series of disturbing events. By adopting the unique narrative structure of its books and using the specific phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure Book,” Chooseco accused Netflix of willfully infringing its trademark and ultimately tarnishing the series’ child-friendly reputation. Netflix eventually settled with Chooseco in late 2020 after unsuccessfully arguing on grounds related to trademark law and fair use allowances.
Moreover, in 2020, Netflix’s movie “Enola Homes” was the subject of a trademark infringement lawsuit by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over “similarities to existing Sherlock Holmes material.” The estate argued that the film depicted a version of Holmes that was not yet in the public domain, illustrating how IP infringement issues can arise when films are based on works still under copyright protection.
Liberty Tax’s recent lawsuit shows that minor alterations to fictitious names may not be enough to bypass trademark infringement issues – not so “sweet” anymore for the “Better Call Saul” team.