John Cena Caught in PBR’s Legal Chokehold
WWE superstar John Cena makes his highly anticipated return from injury on Monday Night Raw this Memorial Day. To complement the hero’s return, WWE has created a new design on the star’s apparel.
Notably, this design appears to imitate the famous logo of the beer brand Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). Without wasting any time, PBR’s twitter account went on the offensive, hinting at sending the company and star cease-and-desist letters. While PBR was not clear, it was likely they were referring to a trademark infringement claim, rather than copyright. PBR’s logo is creative and advertisements are copyrightable, yet the mark’s use as a source identifier of a particular type of beer makes the case more naturally fit in the trademark realm. For trademark claims, courts will analyze whether the infringing use causes confusion, deception, or mistake in relation to the source of the goods or services.
— Pabst Blue Ribbon (@PabstBlueRibbon) May 27, 2016
In order to avoid this possible legal battle, the WWE quickly changed the design and cancelled any orders for the previous shirt. The new design keeps a similar color scheme but eliminates the stripe that could’ve been interpreted as a case of infringement.
Interestingly, disguised parody is not new territory for the WWE. The company has often aped famous logos, including the Boston Celtics, John Deere, and the 8-bit Nintendo Game, Pro Wrestling. Yet WWE was never sued in connection with any of these creative choices. Indeed, it appears that the companies determined that their suits would be frivolous, because the shirts did not create confusion in the marketplace. Consumers knew that they were buying a pro-wrestling t-shirt with no connection to the parodied marks.
Analyzing these past shirts, why did the WWE flinch in the face of social media threats? Did WWE sincerely believe that PBR had a valid cause of action against them, or did the company not want to be bothered with a potential lawsuit? It seems very unlikely that consumers would confuse the shirt as a sponsorship by PBR. In fact, the company’s product is now “PG,” so many of the John Cena fans would not even recognize the correlation. As a result, the artistic decisions of the WWE have been stifled by a brewing company through the surprising bite of Twitter.