One Person’s Muppet is Another Person’s Gelatinous Block of Meat

spam lawsuit over muppetsIn Hormel Corp. v. Jim Henson Productions, Inc., Hormel sued the Muppet master for infringing the trademark of its delicious product SPAM® by naming a character in the 1996 movie, Muppet Treasure Island, “Spa’am.” The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected Hormel’s claims and the Second Circuit affirmed. Among the highlights:

• Hormel was worried that sales of SPAM would suffer if they were linked with Spa’am, the movie character, a wild boar puppet allegedly depicted as “evil in porcine form.” Not to worry. An expert in children’s literature persuaded the court that Spa’am, although not “classically handsome” and introduced as a threatening character at the beginning of the movie, ultimately becomes a positive character when he befriends the Muppets and helps them escape from the film’s villain, Long John Silver. Thank goodness we could find an expert in children’s literature to unravel that puzzle. Would that kind of testimony pass Daubert scrutiny?

• The court opined that Hormel should lighten up because, even though SPAM is a high-quality product, it is already the butt of jokes because of “the public’s unfounded suspicion that SPAM is the product of less than savory ingredients.” The court pointed out that in the television cartoon, Duckman, Duckman discovers the secret ingredient to SPAM as he gazes upon “Murray’s Incontinent Camel Farm.” The court also quoted a columnist who joked that SPAM contained all five major food groups: snouts, ears, feet, tails and brains. The court said that, given all the ribbing, “one might think Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork.”

• The court also rejected Hormel’s claim that Jim Henson Productions’ merchandising of the Spa’am character would interfere with Hormel’s own merchandising of SPAM, including its character, “SPAM-man,” a giant can of SPAM with arms and legs.

Hormel lost the case, but may have had the last laugh. It has sold more than five billion cans of SPAM . SPAM is eaten in 30 percent of American homes. I probably ate a thousand fried SPAM sandwiches when I was a kid, although I try not to think about it.

Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., Inc., 73 F.3d 497, 501–02 (2d Cir. 1996). Thanks to Lihwei Lin.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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