It will perhaps come as no surprise that Tiger King - a new seven-part documentary on Netflix about an eccentric owner of a big cat zoo in Oklahoma known as ‘Joe Exotic’ – has quickly become a viral success. The series, which focuses on Exotic’s collection of 200 big cats and his decades-long feud with animal rights activist Carole Baskin, has spawned countless memes, catchphrases and parodies since it first launched in late March. The show’s many unpredictable twists and turns include a murder-for hire plot, a mysterious disappearance, embezzlement and allegations of animal abuse.
With so many outrageous sub-plots, a trade mark dispute between Exotic and Baskin may at first appear to be one of the more mundane storylines of the show. However, after years of relentless feuding between the pair, this IP battle actually becomes a turning point which in many ways leads to Joe Exotic’s eventual downfall.
Baskin and her animal sanctuary, the Big Cat Rescue (BCR) in Florida, had spent years campaigning against Exotic and his zoo, home to nearly 100 of the world’s 3,890 tigers, in an effort to shut it down. With the increasing popularity of Exotic’s travelling animal show, which visited shopping malls across America allowing huge crowds to pet tiger cubs, Baskin launched a campaign to inundate the malls with calls for the shows to be cancelled. In retaliation, Exotic renamed his travelling show ‘Big Cat Rescue Entertainment’.
In the show, Carole’s husband Howard Baskin shows flyers produced by Exotic to advertise his travelling show under the new name. Similarities were not just limited to the name itself: Howard Baskin highlights that Exotic’s logo was in a similar font and stylisation to the BCR logo, with the word ‘Entertainment’ faded so “you don’t even see it”. The poster features a close-up of the eyes of a snow leopard – which was the masthead for BCR’s website at the time. Exotic even distributed business cards with a Florida address to increase the confusion. Joe Exotic’s intentions were clear to those around him: not only to ‘get back’ at Carole and Howard Baskin, but to supersede them in Google search results.
However, these actions actually gave the Baskins an opportunity to finally take legal action against Joe Exotic: whilst they had been unable to challenge him for cub petting as they lacked the legal standing to do so, they were able to sue for trade mark infringement. They also brought subsequent claims for copyright infringement after Exotic posted photos of Carole Baskin and the BCR sanctuary. The courts decided in the Baskins’ favour for all claims, ordering Joe Exotic to pay BCR over $1 million (US dollars).
The trade mark dispute itself appears to be a clear-cut case of infringement. The Baskins had already registered the name ‘Big Cat Rescue’ as a US federal trade mark by the time Exotic rebranded his travelling show. By using a sign (i.e. ‘Big Cat Rescue Entertainment’) which was highly similar to the BCR registration in the course of trade, and in connection with similar services to those covered by the BCR mark, there was a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public. Indeed, Carole Baskin claims in the Netflix show that people were in fact confused between the marks. ‘People were calling us up saying, “Hey, I didn’t think you did this sort of thing”,’ she explains in an interview.
Hypothetically, looking at this case from a UK and EU law perspective, the Baskins could have also claimed damage to the reputation of their BCR registration. UK and EU trade mark laws allow the owners of a trade mark which has acquired a reputation to prevent a third party from using, without due cause, an identical or similar sign which would take unfair advantage of, or be detrimental to, the reputation of their mark. In particular, BCR could have claimed tarnishing of their mark’s reputation – the Baskins had developed a substantial following in connection with BCR’s big cat rescue and sanctuary operations, and any association with an exploitative cub petting experience would be sure to cause damage. In addition, from a UK perspective, the Baskins may have also had a claim to passing off, by arguing that Exotic’s actions would constitute a misrepresentation, damaging their goodwill.
According to the Netflix series and those interviewed who knew Joe Exotic at the time, this trade mark dispute was a turning point. Exotic is alleged to become even more thirsty for revenge against Baskin in light of the $1 million dollar judgement, and the result plays out in yet more shocking twists and turns throughout the documentary. But amongst the wild plot twists of the show, the legal dispute highlights the true value of trade marks to protect your brand and prevent any third parties from damaging your reputation – and also shows that if you infringe a trade mark, you might just be catching a tiger by the tail.