A recent story that ran in USA Today by Jay Reeves with the Associated Press tackled a topic that I had long disregarded as a non-issue. What’s that you ask? Well, have you ever seen those Christian-themed products that parody trendy, secular ones? You know, “Got Jesus?” instead of “Got Milk?”. That type of stuff. I bet you have, and I’ve never really thought about it much myself (other than “wow that’s corny”), but here’s the thing - Products like these are walking a very, very thin line. A trademark infringement line to be precise. Imitations include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Abercrombie & Fitch > Abreadcrumb & Fish
- iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iLife, iMac > iPray
- Guitar Hero > God is my Hero
I’m certainly not going to list them all, there’s way too many to name. To help put things in perspective for you though, the Christian merchandising industry rakes in a whopping $4.6 billion per year. Of that, one-third is apparel. The very apparel that sports these ripoff branding jobs. There’s no telling how much of that one-third the spoofs and parodies actually make up though.
Trademark attorney Michael G. Atkins of Seattle claims that legal parodies of commercial trademarks are in fact protected under the First Amendment. Let’s drill down what he means by “parodies”, because such religious products generally don’t fall into that category. “You could take Microsoft and change their logo around to make fun of Microsoft, and that would be legal,” Atkins said. “But I can’t use the Microsoft logo to promote my Christian theme because there’s no real connection there. That’s illegal.”
The big issue, of course, is money. That’s what it all comes down to. What Atkins is saying in a nutshell, is that it’s perfectly fine to, say, poke fun at a company using their branding and designs, but it’s unfair to actually profit from it.
The companies that produce this stuff are forcing the originals they derived their products from to walk an equally thin line themselves. Atkins explains, “I think you have a real tension between the legal department and the PR department,” he said. “(Large companies) are very sensitive to looking like they are anti-Christian, so they are very restrained in going after the wrongdoers.”
It’s a very real dilemma. One that probably won’t go away any time soon. Companies producing Christian-themed novelties inspired by pop culture will continue to push the envelope, wait for the next big popular thing, and copy that. The companies who were copied from, of course, won’t do much because they don’t want the general public to judge them lest they be persecuted for wanting to protect their investments – intellectual or otherwise.
Having been raised in a church-going family from the cradle, I’ve seen stuff like this almost on a daily basis. What you should realize is I’m keeping this as unbiased as possible. I’m not taking a stab at any particular religion or denomination, or corporate America for that matter. Heck, I’m not even trying to play devil’s advocate (sorry, bad pun), I’m just exploring the issue. When you get down to the ol’ brass tacks though, this isn’t even so much about the Christian industry in particular swiping somebody elses property, as it is about it being possible to begin with. It’s about blatant trademark infringement taking place and having the issue swept under a rug for fear of negative public backlash.
In the meantime, the masterminds behind these spoofs are laughing all the way to the bank.
With that being said, any ideas what company we can gank from next? Looks like there’s some real money to be had here.