IP Law and the Presidential Sneakers…

President Obama is likely the first true “celebrity president”, at least the first in our time, in the sense that people see opportunities for making money from his persona and likeness.  Early on in the presidency, his office made some remarks to the extent that they were working on a policy asking people to be respectful of the president and his family in restraining some of these commercial impulses.  Of course, all of this raises the fine line between free speech and personality rights – a topic much debated on the cyberprof listserve in the early days of this presidency.

In this vein, I couldn’t resist posting an ad I came across last night that squarely raises these legal issues.  A company that appears to be in Michigan (although they do not give their postal address, but do require Michigan residents to pay sales tax on purchases from their website) has set up an “Obama shoes” website.  On this website, you can purchase Obama sneakers, backpacks, and basketballs.

The website uses video clips from one of Obama’s speeches and refers to itself as selling merchandise that is inspirational to young folks and that is intended to commemorate Obama’s inauguration. Thus, it obviously intends to juxtapose free speech interests in the inauguration against the commercial use of Obama’s name and likeness.

There are some other interesting little sidenotes about this business venture that suggest the people who set it up sought at least some legal advice before doing so.

1. They used the domain name “obamashoes.tv” presumably either because they couldn’t get a “better” domain name or because they wanted to avoid claims under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. They could argue that even if Obama’s name operates as a TM, they have not used his actual name in the domain name, but have added “shoes” to the end of it so no one will think it’s an authorized Obama website.

2. They include a disclaimer on their webpage to the effect that: “Obamashoes.tv is a private entity and makes no claim of affiliation or endorsement by President Barack Obama or his campaign for office.”

3. Interestingly, there is also a disclaimer on their FAQ page about the design of the sneakers themselves. “Q. Why does [sic] the shoes look like Nike Air Force Ones (AF1) and the Jordan Brand?
A. These design is [sic] been proven to be commonly preferred by most Adults & Children (black or white).” Now, I personally don’t know anything about sneaker designs, but I assume this is intended as a preemptive strike to ward of claims in trademark, trade dress, and/or design patent with respect to the actual design of the shoes.

So, interesting business model…
Legitimate free speech? Or intellectual property law infringement as far as they eye can see?

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