SPAM is a famous trademark owned by Hormel Foods used for the last seventy-five years in connection with a canned product made of "100% pure pork and ham."
In Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., 73 F.3d 497 (2d Cir. 1996), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that use of the name "Spa'am" for a porcine type character in one of the late Jim Henson's popular Muppet movies did not cause dilution the famous SPAM mark owned by Hormel. Hormel filed suit claiming that it considered the Muppet form "grotesque" and "untidy" and worried that the association between its meat product and the similarly named character might place the wholesomeness of Hormel's product in a poor light.
Trademark dilution law protects famous marks from unauthorized uses, even where confusion is not likely. These "super marks" âincluding SPAM-- are the subjects of special protection under the Federal Trademark Dilution Act, which prevents only famous marks from being "blurred" or "tarnished" by third-party uses.
Most often tarnishing uses fall into the category of creating unsavory associations between a famous brands and says illegal drugs or sexually graphic content. The landmark trademark dilution case, which made its way from Elizabethtown, Kentucky to the U.S. Supreme Court and brought about an amendment to the federal law involved the use of the mark "Victor's Little Secret' for a strip mall retail location that sold, among other things, "adult novelties" that had to make their way to the cashier inside of paper bags.
The court in deciding Hormel's dilution claim found the Spa'am character to be fairly likeable, even wholesome, writing:
"Spa'am, however, is not the boarish Beelzebub that Hormel seems to fear. The district court credited and relied upon the testimony of Anne Devereaux Jordan, an expert in children's literature, to find that Spa'am is a positive figure in the context of the movie as a whole--even if he is not 'classically handsome.' â¦Indeed, Spa'am is a comic character who 'seems childish rather than evil.' â¦ Although he is humorously threatening in his first appearance, he comes to befriend the Muppets and helps them escape from the film's villain, Long John Silver. By film's end, 'Spa'am is shown sailing away with the other Muppets as good humor and camaraderie reign.'"
Moreover, the court suggested that the SPAM meat product may be beyond tarnishment, noting, "[i]n a recent newspaper column it was noted that '[I]n one little can, Spam contains the five major food groups: Snouts. Ears. Feet. Tails. Brains.' Mike Thomas, Ready? Set? No!, The Orlando Sentinel, June 25, 1995, at 30. "
Although the court ultimately denied dilution protection to the SPAM mark on a legal finding that Henson was engaged in something closer to parody than anticompetitive conduct, the decision further solidified the consumer impressions associated with the SPAM mark â thereby perhaps vaulting SPAM into a new category of super "kitsch" marks that has generated a SPAM fan club, SPAM museum, and web site dedicated to all things SPAM. Take a look at www.spam.com.
Maybe SPAM really does go with everything...
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