Document Type


Publication Date



Some years ago, caselaw on trademark parodies and similar unauthorized “speech” uses of trademarks could have led one to conclude that the law had no sense of humor. Over time, however, courts in the US and elsewhere began to leaven likelihood of confusion analyses with healthy skepticism regarding consumers’ alleged inability to perceive a joke. These decisions did not always expressly cite the copyright fair use defense, but the considerations underlying the copyright doctrine seemed to inform trademark analysis as well. The spillover effect may indeed have been inevitable, as several of the cases in which the fair use defense prevailed coupled copyright and trademark claims.

Just as copyright law has influenced the development of trademark doctrine in the US, so has trademark law evolved a reciprocal relationship with copyright, potentially extending the protection of certain copyrighted works, notably cartoon characters, beyond the copyright term.

This essay will first address how the US copyright fair use doctrine has allowed US federal judges in trademarks cases to connect with their inner comic impulses. Second, I will consider the conflict between trademark law’s potentially eternal duration and copyright’s constitutionally mandated limited times, particularly in the context of visual characters such as Mickey Mouse. Looking to EU law, I will also offer some additional considerations regarding the use of expired copyrighted works as trademarks. While those analyses address trademarks and copyright as potential antagonists where exercise of trademark rights threatens to frustrate copyright policies, there is another side of the coin. To an increasing extent, we are seeing trademark symbols become characters and acquire value not only as source-indicators, but also as artistic (or audiovisual) works. I will conclude by considering the value that copyright protection might add to registered trademarks.


Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law | Intellectual Property Law | Law