June 9, 2020

Rogers Defense in Fight over Trademark Use in Teen Movie: Blockbuster or Flop?

Australian motorcycle company (and newcomer to the film critic scene) Deus Ex Machina Motorcycles Pty. Ltd., has sued Warner Bros. and MGM Studios for trademark infringement for dressing the female lead in a jacket bearing their registered trademark “Deus ex Machina” in the “flop” “schmaltzy teen-style love story,” The Sun Is Also a Star.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a teen drama based on the young adult novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. The phrase “deus ex machina” is essential to Yoon’s story, where its placement on the female protagonist’s backpack gets her noticed by the male protagonist and sets the love story in motion. The movie moved the phrase from the book’s backpack to a jacket. According to a 2019 article in MarieClaire.com, the jacket plays a critical role in the film. Costume designer Deirdra Govan created the jacket from scratch in three-and-a-half weeks with the help of her mighty team of assistants, tailors, set costumers, and costume supervisor, working on roughly 15 different styles before landing on the one.

The Complaint sets up another First Amendment battle between artists and brand owners. Yoon undoubtedly chose the phrase for its well known literary meaning. A heavily merchandised motorcycle company with a curated tough-guy image was probably the last think on her mind. Still, the movie moved the phrase from a backpack to a jacket. It also does not help that Charles Melton, who plays the male lead in the movie, posed for promotional pictures posted to social media in which he wore clothing actually sold by Deus Ex Machina.

It seems that Warner Bros. and MGM Studios have a reasonable First Amendment Rogers defense (also called the Rogers v. Grimaldi defense), which holds that artistic works that use third-party trademarks are protected under the First Amendment if the trademark is artistically relevant to the work and there is no misleading connection between the brand and the work or artist. Unless tough-guy bikers are sneaking into “schmaltzy” teen love stories, a reasonable argument can likely be made that there is no likelihood of confusion.

While the movie may have flopped, hopefully their defense will be a blockbuster.