from the humdinger dept
Almost exactly a year ago, we first wrote about a trademark lawsuit brought by AM General LLC, the company that makes Humvee vehicles, and Activision. At issue is the inclusion of historically accurate Humvee vehicles in the publisher’s Call of Duty games. AM General decried those depictions as trademark infringement, leading Activision to say its use was protected by the First Amendment, given that the entire goal here was to accurately depict warfare in an artistic fashion. Shortly after, the ESA chimed in with an amicus brief siding with Activision. Given the implications for the gaming industry should AM General win the suit, this was no surprise.
Well, fortunately for creative expression in gaming, the court has ruled and has sided with Activision.
In his ruling this week, though, District Judge George B. Daniels dismissed AM General’s claim. That decision hinged in part on a 1989 precedent that established that artistic works could make reference to outside trademarks as long as the usage was relevant to the work and did not “explicitly mislead as to the source of the content or work.”
The court then went through an eight-prong “Polaroid” test (named after a precedential 1961 case) to determine whether Activision’s use of Humvees amounted to a legally relevant “explicit misleading” that would trump First Amendment protections. As part of that argument, AM General submitted a survey it conducted showing 16 percent of consumers “were confused as to AM General’s association with Call of Duty.” As Judge Daniels notes, “less than 20 percent confusion regarding two companies’ ‘association’… is at most some confusion” and does not amount to the “particularly compelling” confusion required by legal precedent.
The court actually continued on in its analysis as to why AM General’s claims were nonsense. It’s a fairly thorough debunking by the court. Ultimately, however, the court dove into the impact that ruling otherwise would have on the First Amendment rights for artistic expression in mediums where realism is part of the art.
Daniels writes that “if realism is an artistic goal, then the presence in Modern Warfare games of vehicles employed by actual militaries undoubtedly furthers that goal.” And even if that commitment to realism causes a modicum of brand confusion in this case, it’s not enough to override the First Amendment protections that video games have enjoyed since a 2011 Supreme Court ruling.
In other words, the tiny bit of maybe, potentially confusion that AM General ginned up in its filing doesn’t remotely undue the protections artists and content creators enjoy for free and open expression. You know, the type of freedoms that the US Military has helped our country secure… often times using Humvees!
It’s good to see a court side with free expression over corporate protectionism every once in a while.