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Intellectual Property Vs. Clever Parody

Posted by on October 1, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

The Post-Dispatch has a story about a college freshman from Ladue and the very small clothing line he came up with two years ago as a parody of “The North Face.” Apparently, the legal department at The North Face is taking issue with his business all of a sudden.

Certainly, there is a trade-off between protecting intellectual property and permitting free expression. Absent any copyright protection, an entrepreneur can spend an entire life building good faith in a brand only to have fly-by-night startups capitalize on it by selling under the trusted name. However, the case of Jimmy Winkelmann — the parody clothing line’s creator — is clearly not in need of the intellectual property adjuvant. Even if each respective clothing line were displayed on adjacent shelves at Macy’s, I doubt anyone would confuse the brands “The North Face” and “The South Butt,” despite the obvious satirical similarity.

But they aren’t even on adjacent shelves. According to the article, the Ladue Pharmacy on Clayton Road is the only store that stocks the clothing. We don’t need intellectual property rights to protect The North Face from a joke competitor. In fact, I tend to agree with Al Watkins, attorney for “The South Butt,” when he says of “The North Face” (quoted in the article):

“I don’t think they have any grounds to stand on,” Watkins said. “They’re just being bullies.”

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