Trial of the Century: Trademark Style

“So this is the Day of The Dead” from “We All Lose One Another” by Jason Collett
Trial of the Century! For most Americans, those words conjure two letters—O.J.  But for the past week or so, O.J. arguably has been upstaged by an unlikely figure—Dan Aykroyd.
That’s right, Dan Aykroyd–one of Saturday Night Live’s original “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” who won the fame as the staccato pitchman in SNL’s “Bass-O-Matic” infomercial parody, and who cemented his place in comedy’s pantheon with the original “Ghostbusters” and “Blues Brothers” films. That Dan Aykroyd has evolved into a trademark crusader for his real-life brand of vodka called “Crystal Head,” sold in a distinctive skull-shaped bottle:

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As with most things, success breeds imitators. For Crystal Head, imitation came in the form of rival KAH brand of tequila, also packaged in skull shaped bottles. Unlike Aykroyd’s brand, those skulls were opaque, brightly colored affairs:

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KAH founder Kim Brandi claimed that Mexico’s iconic Day of The Dead imagery had inspired her skull design. Aykroyd and his business partner Globefill, Inc., didn’t buy it. They sued for trademark infringement back in 2010. But in a 2013 trial, Brandi beat back Aykroyd’s infringement claim. She testified that she hadn’t even seen Aykroyd’s skull bottles. And the jury bought it.

Dan Aykroyd didn’t give up. He and his lawyers appealed and won a new trial. That new trial, which unfolded last week in a California courtroom, featured showmanship, skullduggery, and scandal worthy of one of Aykroyd’s big-budget Hollywood movies. Aykroyd cast himself in the role of star witness for the prosecution. Wielding a tape measure, Aykroyd systematically compared the features, angles, and dimensions of his skull bottle to Brandi’s. He also testified that confusion in the marketplace was threatening his brand. Claiming to have found a broken glass inside a KAH bottle, Aykroyd told the jury: “I thought, even more reason for me to be concerned about source. What if someone got hurt? And for someone to think we have a product on the market that’s inferior to our vodka, that’s unacceptable.” Aykroyd also testified that KAH tequila “obviously” was a confusingly similar copycat: “I really couldn’t count about how many people who have come and asked us about our new tequila in the skull bottle. We had to say, ‘It’s not ours.’”

Brandi, for her part, argued that Aykroyd shouldn’t be able to block all skull shaped liquor bottles, especially ones like Brandi’s, whose bright colors evoked iconic Mexican imagery. And Brandi stuck to her story, insisting that she hadn’t seen Aykroyd’s skull bottles when decided on the Day of The Dead theme for her tequila bottles. She brushed-aside the similarities Aykroyd had pointed out as “coincidence.”

That’s when the real drama happened. In a finale worth of Perry Mason, Aykroyd’s legal team unveiled a bombshell—the guy Brandi hired to design her bottles. This surprise witness testified that Brandi handed him one of Aykroyd’s skull bottles and told him to make a plaster cast of it so that she could model her design on Aykroyd’s distinctive skull container.
Armed with this testimony, Aykroyd’s lawyer told the jury that Brandi had lied. Four hours later, the jury returned its verdict—guilty as charged.

So now, seven years after the story began, Dan Aykroyd and his legal team are close to achieving their perfect ending. All that remains is for the Judge to decide the remedy. That phase of the case is still to come. For now, Aykroyd has the satisfaction of knowing that, at least for now, justice delayed is not justice denied.

The name of the case is Globefill Inc. v. Elements Spirits Inc., 2:10-cv-02034, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Quote of the day: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.” Hamlet by W. Shakespeare

1 Comment

Filed under IP, Right of Publicity

One response to “Trial of the Century: Trademark Style

  1. Mark Litowitz

    Truly a case of skulduggery.

    Mark Litowitz melit7@verizon.net

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