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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Spiller

Parody as a Defense to Trademark Infringement Claims

Picture of the word "Parody"

While parody can sometimes be used as a defense in trademark infringement cases in the United States, it's important to understand that the legal landscape surrounding this issue is complex and often subject to interpretation by the courts. In this blog post, we'll delve into the history of caselaw related to parody as a defense for trademark infringement, examining key cases and discussing the factors that courts consider when evaluating whether a parody qualifies for protection.

The Origins of Parody as a Defense for Trademark Infringement

To comprehend the role of parody in trademark law, we must first understand the principle of trademark infringement. Trademark infringement occurs when one party uses a mark that is identical or confusingly similar to another party's trademark in connection with goods or services, leading to consumer confusion. However, the law also recognizes certain defenses that may shield defendants from liability, one of which is parody.

Parody, in the context of trademark law, involves the use of a trademark in a humorous or satirical manner to comment on or criticize the trademark owner or the goods or services associated with the mark. Parody serves as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

Landmark Cases Shaping Parody Defense

One of the seminal cases that established parody as a potential defense in trademark infringement cases is Cliffs Notes, Inc. v. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. (2nd Cir. 1990). In this case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the use of the "Cliffs Notes" mark in a book titled "Cliff Notes for The Waste Land" constituted parody and was protected under the First Amendment, despite some likelihood of consumer confusion.

Similarly, in L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc. (1st Cir. 1981), the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the defendant's use of the L.L. Bean trademark in a parody advertisement was protected speech and not actionable as trademark infringement.

These cases set important precedents by recognizing that parody can serve as a defense against trademark infringement claims under certain circumstances. However, courts have also emphasized that not all uses of trademarks in parody are immune from liability.

Factors Considered by Courts

When evaluating whether the use of a trademark qualifies as parody and therefore merits First Amendment protection, courts typically consider several factors:

  1. Likelihood of Confusion: Courts assess whether the parody creates a likelihood of confusion among consumers regarding the source or sponsorship of the goods or services.

  2. Commercial Nature: Parodies that are purely expressive in nature are more likely to receive First Amendment protection than those with a significant commercial purpose.

  3. Degree of Transformation: The extent to which the trademark is altered or transformed in the parody is crucial. Parodies that substantially transform the mark to convey a different message are more likely to be deemed protected.

  4. Commentary or Criticism: The parody must effectively comment on or criticize the trademark owner, the trademark itself, or the goods or services associated with the mark.

  5. Market Impact: Courts may consider whether the parody adversely affects the market for the original trademark owner's goods or services.

Recent Developments and Challenges

In recent years, the rise of online platforms and social media has led to a proliferation of parody accounts, websites, and products. While many of these parodies are created in jest and intended for entertainment purposes, they can sometimes blur the line between protected speech and actionable infringement.

Furthermore, the expansion of trademark protection to non-traditional marks such as sounds, colors, and scents has raised additional complexities in determining the scope of parody defense.


Parody serves as an important safeguard for freedom of expression in trademark law, allowing individuals and entities to engage in social commentary, satire, and humor while respecting the rights of trademark owners. However, the application of parody as a defense in trademark infringement cases requires careful consideration of various factors by the courts.

As the legal landscape continues to evolve, it is essential for creators and businesses to understand the boundaries of parody protection and seek legal guidance when navigating potentially contentious issues involving trademarks and parody. Ultimately, striking a balance between intellectual property rights and free speech is essential in fostering a vibrant and creative society.

Spiller Law is an advisor to startup businesses, entertainment and media companies, and artists. Feel free to schedule a free consultation.


Spiller Law is a San Francisco business, entertainment, and estate planning law firm. We serve clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and California. Feel free to arrange a free consultation using the Schedule Appointment link on our website. For other questions, call our offices at 415-991-7298.


The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers are advised to consult with their legal counsel for specific advice.


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