Anyone who has been on the internet since 2012 likely recognizes the ubiquitous frowning face of “Grumpy Cat,” real name Tardar Sauce, emblazoned upon memes, videos, and products. Her fame and market power is far from restricted to the internet though; since her internet debut, she has appeared on television shows, starred in advertisements for major brands, and even authored New York Times bestsellers. Her owners Tabatha and Bryan Bundesen founded Grumpy Cat Ltd., which owns various IP rights associated with the Grumpy Cat brand.
In late 2015, Grumpy Cat Ltd. filed suit against beverage company Grenade Beverages LLC and its owners Paul and Nick Sandford for trademark and copyright infringement. Grumpy Cat Ltd. entered into a license agreement with Grenade in 2013 allowing the company to market a line of iced coffee beverages, which was later allegedly breached when Grenade began marketing additional products featuring Grumpy Cat’s brand. Two years of litigation later, in January 2018, a California jury sided with Grumpy Cat Ltd. and awarded it $710,000 for trademark and copyright infringement. Last month, the parties submitted additional briefing to the court to decide the remaining claims of cybersquatting and declaratory relief, which remain pending.
Takeaway: Advertisers should note that taking content from pop-culture, including memes, may be subject to intellectual property infringement claims from its owners. To minimize risk of liability, advertisers that obtain licenses from IP owners should take care to operate within the bounds of license agreements and seek approval from licensors before marketing potentially infringing products.