Homeland Security Totally Misunderstands Trademark Law; Seizes Perfectly Legal Sporting Goods Anyway

by Mike Masnick
Feb. 03, 2015

Homeland Security's Immigration & Customs Enforcement group (ICE) has a history of seizing stuff without understanding even the most basic concepts around intellectual property. After all, these are the same meatheads who seized some blogs for alleged copyright infringement, and then had to return some of them over a year later, after they realized it was a mistake. ICE also has a history of using big sporting events to kiss up to the multi-billion dollar sports organizations by shutting down small businesses, protecting Americans from unlicensed underwear. And, of course, what bigger sporting event is there than the Super Bowl. Every year they make a bunch of seizures related to the Superbowl, and this year was no different.

ICE agents gleefully were patrolling Phoenix looking for clothes to seize. But there was just one, rather large, problem with how they went about it. It appears that the people in charge of all this, didn't know the first thing about the "law" they were supposedly enforcing. Seizing counterfeits is about stopping trademark infringement. But not everything using a trademark is infringing. Trademark, after all, is a form of a consumer protection law, designed to protect people from buying one thing, believing it's another. If there's no likelihood of confusion, then ICE isn't supposed to be seizing it (and, yes, there is also dilution of trademark, but ICE isn't supposed to be seizing products that dilute someone's trademark -- just those that are "counterfeit"). But that's not, apparently, how ICE sees things:
The profane debasing of a mascot -- and really anything that denigrates a team -- is guaranteed to be contraband, said Daniel Modricker, a spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That "Yankees Suck" T-shirt you put on for special occasions? If it uses anything that looks like a team or league logo, it probably constitutes trademark infringement.
Almost all of that is wrong. Using someone else's trademark to comment on them is a perfectly legal use -- and not at all counterfeit. Pretending otherwise gets into some pretty sketchy First Amendment areas, as using a trademarked word, phrase or image to criticize someone is considered protected. But, not to ICE. As Rebecca Tushnet explains:
"Profane debasing"--and when did mascots become sacred?--is not confusing. I don't think ICE has authority to seize diluting merchandise, and anyway very few of these will be using the profaned mascots "as a mark," meaning the dilution exceptions for parody and criticism apply. This is a blatant misunderstanding of the law, being perpetuated by a federal official with only the small reassurance that federal agents won't come down and rip a previously purchased shirt off your back.
Of course, the small time vendor with a table on the street isn't likely to challenge the federal government for stealing his perfectly legal shirts that "debase" a mascot. So ICE's Daniel Modricker gets to spew his ignorant and wrong statements and get away with it. Because ICE is ICE, and this is generally how it goes about its business. It has the guns and it gets to decide the law, no matter what the Constitution has to say about it.

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