“I’m never going to financially recover from this”: The Tiger King Trademark Lawsuit

“I’m never going to financially recover from this”: The Tiger King Trademark Lawsuit

Netflix had the best quarter in its history because of the pandemic and the worldwide lockdown. The video streaming company added more subscribers and saw a surge in viewing. For instance, Netflix’s “Tiger King” was watched by 34 million viewers in the US alone in merely 10 days. “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is a true-crime docuseries that debuted on March 20, 2020 and became a word-of-mouth sensation within the first 10 days of its release. Not only did it become a phenomenon among viewers, but it has also become a hit with critics and had a 92% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes in March.

The series takes place in Oklahoma and follows the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic, as well as other interesting characters, such as Joe’s competitor Carole Baskin and fellow zookeeper Bhagavan Antle, the leader of a cult-like polyamorous group that staffs his zoo. The series brings to light a plethora of legal issues, including arson investigation, murder for hire schemes, and animal abuse allegations. Interestingly, the series involved several intellectual property disputes like the docantle.com domain name lawsuit, and trademark and copyright lawsuits against Joe Exotic. This article will explore Carole Baskin’s trademark suit against Joe Exotic in particular.

In 2011, Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue filed a complaint in federal court in Florida alleging that Exotic infringed her trademark rights on her BIG CAT RESCUE logo. The purpose of trademarks is to identify the source of goods and services of the trademark holder to distinguish those goods and services from others in the marketplace. In her complaint, Carole Baskin had to demonstrate that Exotic’s similar trademark caused a likelihood of consumer confusion with her trademark. To prove this claim, she showed that she had a registered mark, and that Joe’s use of “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” infringed her exclusive trademark rights. Title 6, Section 15 of the United States Trademark Act states that any person who use in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution or advertising of any goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion is liable for civil damages.

To determine trademark infringement and whether a likelihood of confusion exists, the respective marks are examined for their similarities and differences. Even if not identical, if the marks create the same general commercial impression in the consumer’s mind, then the marks may be deemed confusingly similar. In this case, Joe Exotic used the name “Big Cat Rescue Experience” to promote his zoo, as well as his show where he travelled with big cats and performed magic. Exotic only added the term “entertainment” to Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue to create his Big Cat Rescue Entertainment/Experience. Moreover, Exotic marketed the show by using an image that had a virtually identical logo to Baskin’s logo for the Big Cat Rescue. Also, not only were Exotic’s services similar to those of Baskin’s (animal sanctuary/zoo), but Exotic’s use of the Florida phone number created an illusion that his business was operating in the same geographic area as Baskin’s sanctuary. So, Exotic’s use of a minimally modified name and logo was likely to confuse consumers into thinking that his zoo had a connection or affiliation with Carole’s non-profit sanctuary.

The consumer confusion allowed Exotic to unlawfully benefit from the popularity of Baskin’s sanctuary by steering Internet traffic away from Baskin. Consequently, the court has ruled in favour of Baskin and ordered Exotic to pay legal costs and damages to Carole’s Big Cat Rescue in the amount of $953,000. Recently, the Federal Judge in Oklahoma City ordered Exotic’s Zoo, which was transferred to his mother in order to evade creditors, to be turned over to Baskin.

Written by Elif Babaoglu, who is a contributing IPilogue Editor and the Co-Director of Events of the Osgoode Privacy Law Society.