Tiger King and Big Cat Rescue – the Value of a Registered Trade Mark
Monday 15th June 2020
Article written by: Ingrid Seegers
The Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness has caused quite a stir due to its shocking content portraying the big cat trade in the United States, animal rights crimes, murder accusations, and a murder-for-hire plot, but from an Intellectual Property perspective, of most interest has been the highlighting of the trade mark case between Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, known as “Joe Exotic”, and Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin.
Exotic, in retaliation to actions taken by animal rights activist Baskin (who, in a decades-long feud with Exotic, campaigned against Exotic’s treatment of his big cats in an effort to shut down his zoo and stop his travelling animal show, which allowed crowds of people to pet tiger cubs), directly copied Baskin’s “Big Cat Rescue” trade mark and renamed his travelling show “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment”. Not only did Exotic use the name “Big Cat Rescue”, he also copied Big Cat Rescue’s logo, with the word “Entertainment” in the mark being used in a different and smaller font so as not to be as noticeable. To further create confusion with Baskin’s rescue centre, Exotic used a close-up of the eyes of a snow leopard (a similar image used on the Big Cat Rescue website at the time), and a non-existent Florida address (where Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue is located) on his marketing materials. Exotic’s actions, as noted on the show, were to “get back” at Baskin and to surpass Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue in Google search results. However, while Baskin had no legal standing to take action against Exotic’s tiger cub petting and exploiting/hurting of animals, Exotic’s copying of her trade mark gave her the opportunity to sue him for trade mark infringement as she had already registered the “Big Cat Rescue” logo as a federal trade mark in the United States. Due to the similarities between the trade marks and the use of the marks in relation to identical services (both parties providing paid opportunities to view big cats), the courts decided in Baskin’s favour, and together with a favourable copyright decision (relating to Exotic’s use of photos belonging to Baskin), Exotic was ordered to pay Big Cat Rescue over US$1 million in damages. This decision ultimately led to his bankruptcy and has been noted on the show to be the turning point which led to Exotic’s downfall.
As evidenced by the Big Cat Rescue trade mark case, a registered trade mark is a valuable asset, as it gives the registered owner the exclusive right to use a mark, and the right to take legal action against infringers, with damages and injunctions as remedies. In a world where there may not be quite as much mayhem and madness as portrayed in Tiger King, but where market competition is almost certainly guaranteed, your registered trade mark could be a most valuable weapon in protecting your brand and its reputation.