The Supreme Court has come to a decision in a case involving two very unusual opponents: one of America’s oldest whiskey brands and a company specializing in chew toys for dogs.
On June 8, the highest court in the land decided in favor of Jack Daniel’s Properties Inc., the company that owns the famous Tennessee whiskey, over VIP Products, a company that makes squeaky dog toys. The focus of this dispute was a dog toy by VIP named “Bad Spaniels” that the whiskey company says infringed on its trademarks.
Part of VIP’s “Silly Squeakers” line of dog toys, the Bad Spaniels toy, with its guilty looking cocker spaniel to its label, is a "parody" of the appearance of Jack Daniel’s distinct square bottle and design, according to the Court's syllabus.
It’s part of more than 30 dog toys in the product line that take inspiration from other adult beverages, all with very-good-boy-focused names like “Dos Perros,” “Jose the Perro” and “Heinie Sniffn.”
In addition to its title, the Bad Spaniels toy translates other text on the more than 150-year-old company’s original label, replacing “Old No. 7 Brand Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey” with “The Old No. 2 On Your Tennessee Carpet.” Instead of “40% ALC BY VOL. (80 PROOF),” the toy reads “43% POO BY VOL.” and “100% SMELLY.”
VIP Products did not immediately respond to TODAY.com’s request for comment, but its owner Stephen Sacra said in an emailed statement to Cronkite News on June 9, “At this time, legal has suggested that we refrain from comment.”
The Court’s opinion was authored by Justice Elena Kagan, who acknowledges the case’s silly-but-serious aura in a 27-page decision.
As Kagan notes, Jack Daniel’s first sent a cease-and-desist to the company soon after the product hit the market in 2014, hoping it would end sales of the toy. But VIP Products has fought the whiskey company’s efforts at every turn. Since the initial letter, the case — which was initially brought by VIP Products — has worked its way from the Ninth Court of Appeals in 2020 to the Supreme Court, where all nine justices voted unanimously in favor of Jack Daniel’s.
“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision recognizing the rights of brand owners,” a Jack Daniel’s spokesperson tells TODAY.com in an emailed statement. “Jack Daniel’s is a brand recognized for quality and craftsmanship and when friends around the world see the label, they know it stands for something they can count on. We will continue to support efforts to protect the goodwill and strength of this iconic trademark.”
“This case is about dog toys and whiskey, two items seldom appearing in the same sentence,” wrote Kagan in her opinion, before describing the dog toy in detail. “The jokes did not impress petitioner Jack Daniel’s Properties. It owns trademarks in the distinctive Jack Daniel’s bottle and in many of the words and graphics on the label. And it believed Bad Spaniels had both infringed and diluted those trademarks.”
Jack Daniel’s asserts, Kagan notes, that VIP Products led consumers to believe that the whiskey company had created, or was otherwise responsible for, the Bad Spaniels toy.
“Bad Spaniels had diluted the marks, the argument went on, by associating the famed whiskey with, well, dog excrement,” Kagan writes.
Explaining why it decided in Jack Daniel's favor, the Court notes that the decision was “narrow” and that the Bad Spaniels toy was not covered by VIP Products’ First Amendment rights.
Months before this decision, it was argued on March 22, when Kagan also asked an attorney for VIP Products, “What is there to it? What is the parody here?” causing the courtroom to erupt into laughter. “Because maybe I just have no sense of humor.”
The Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing leading producers and marketers of distilled spirits products in the United States of which Jack Daniel’s is a part, spoke on the court’s decision to USA Today.
“While this case focused on silly dog toys, the issue of trademark infringement is very serious and this unanimous ruling is a big win for brand owners working hard to responsibly market their products,” said Courtney Armour, the Distilled Spirits Council’s chief legal officer.
Jack Daniel's is notoriously protective of its trademarks. In 2013, Jack Daniel’s brought a lawsuit against Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey, claiming the product’s redesigned square bottle was “confusingly similar” to its packaging. Eventually, Jack Daniel's dropped the suit.
Additionally, in 2012, the whiskey company sent a “very polite” cease-and-desist letter to Patrick Wensink, whose book, “Broken Piano for President,” used the iconic whiskey label as a template for its cover. The controversy caused the book to climb the charts and became the sixth bestseller on Amazon — about which the author wrote in the Huffington Post. The publisher decided to revise the cover for future production of the print-on-demand book.