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When does parody become infringement?

If you’re a fan of hip-hop music and own a dog, you might initially find humor in a company that cleverly melds the two together with plenty of puns. However, the trademark opposition lawsuit that the company now faces is quite a bit less light-hearted.

The company in question, Woof-Tang Clan, is a dog-walking service based in New York City. Its marketing, merchandise and even the brand name all satirize musical group Wu-Tang Clan. This case presents an opportunity to discuss parodies in relation to trademark law, which can easily extend to Kansas and Missouri creative business owners.

The owner of Woof-Tang Clan meant well when he founded his business around the artists; he’s actually their dedicated fan. However, even good intentions can have negative outcomes. This is why RZA, a member of Wu-Tang Clan, has filed suit against the Woof-Tang Clan’s trademark.

Grievances against the dog-walking service include the multiple references to lyrics and albums on official material. The company sells graphic t-shirts, which display Wu-Tang Clan’s album art with the addition of dogs, to advertise their company. RZA and his attorney allege that this kind of spoof crosses the line and is, in fact, unlawful infringement.

RZA could have a strong claim to his opposition. First, the t-shirts and marketing material generated revenue. Courts usually see parody for profit as a more egregious offense than, for example, posting a fictional image of the t-shirt graphics on a personal social media account. Second, references to Wu-Tang Clan were pervasive across the company, becoming a central pillar of their brand. A judge will determine whether these references are substantial enough to be copyright infringement.

Although this case is still up in the air, business owners already have a take-away: tread parody carefully. Before starting a business, owners and entrepreneurs should fully research existing trademarks that could jeopardize the company. If parody is a large part of your brand, you will need to make special considerations to avoid the sort of lawsuit brewing between Woof-Tang Clan and Wu-Tang Clan.

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