Labor Strike Signs Laying on the Ground Outside of a Protect

Medieval Times v. Medieval Times Performers United and the American Guild of Variety Artists is a case out of the District of New Jersey. This was a labor dispute that veered into trademark law — where management tried to use its trademark rights as a sword to nip a nascent union in the bud.

The employer, Medieval Times, is a chain of entertainment facilities in several locations around the country, including where this case was brought in New Jersey. Medieval Times provides the archetypal medieval/renaissance fair dining experience, in which the customers can enjoy dinner and experience merriment while watching things like jousting and hand-to-hand combat.

The labor dispute started when employees at the Lyndhurst location decided to form a union. The union gave itself a name and a crest that featured the name of the employer: Medieval Times. The union’s website indicated that if people wanted to get in touch with the union, they should come to the “castle” in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.  

The owner of Medieval Times sued for monetary and injunctive relief for violating the Trademark Act.  However, the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, noting that the union advertises or promotes its goods and services through its website, and on the website, the crest is very different: around the edge of the union’s crest are the words “Medieval Times actors, stunt performers, and stable hands are joining together in union.” This clearly had the effect of serving as a disclaimer from being sponsored by the owners of Medieval Times.

The court also engaged in a side-by-side comparison and held that the overall impressions were not confusingly similar. Both marks used a castle and they both used the words “Medieval Times,” but the words were written in different stylized fonts and colors. The elements — an arched doorway, rectangular parapets, and swords — often appear in medieval themes and castles not unique to the owner of Medieval Times. Furthermore, the scalloped border used by the union was not similar to the crest-like symbol that Medieval Times employed.

The judge also said the choice of a particular name by a labor organization may very well facilitate a legitimate purpose: to represent the employees of a particular employer. It makes sense to use the employer’s name when creating a union of that employer’s workers. Indeed, the judge cited six cases (ranging from the early 2000s to 2018) where unions were allowed to use their employer’s trademark as part of communications about the employer’s labor practices. Using the employer’s name was not likely to create confusion as to the source of the union’s services, but instead was part of a message that requires a reference to the plaintiff.  

So, it seems like the names of unions were protected by the defense of “nominative fair use,” where the defendant asserts that it must refer to the plaintiff’s trademark in order to engage in the defendant’s services. For example, if you sell genuine Samsung devices, you are entitled to use the word Samsung in your advertising to help you sell those genuine products. And in this case, the union for employees of Medieval Times were allowed to say, “We are the Medieval Times employee union.”

Although deciding a likelihood of confusion question is generally a fact-intensive inquiry, this district court made its determination at the pleadings stage — long before the parties engaged in full-scale, sword-wielding litigation. In a trademark lawsuit like this, the parties didn’t need to engage in discovery because there apparently was not much information or documents uniquely in the hands of the defendants.  I suppose the plaintiff could have done a survey, but who would be the appropriate survey group:  consumers of dining in castles, or the employees who serve the food, drink, and stage medieval fights?  

To me, it seems that the company owners tried to use trademark law in an innovative way, trying to prevent the formation of a union. However, even if this was a creative way to use IP, it was also poorly done, since there seems to be a real history of cases recognizing nominative fair use permitting a union to identify itself with the name of the workers’ employer. Maybe that energy should instead have been spent trying to mediate wages and work conditions with the union.

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