Caution: Spoilers Ahead. Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” is currently the number one show on the streaming service and one of the most talked about shows in media. The series explores the peculiar world of private, big-cat zoos and the strange characters that run them. The show centers on an escalating feud between the “Tiger King” Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, an eccentric big-cat breeder and owner of a private exotic animal park in Oklahoma, and Carol Baskin, the owner of a non-profit animal sanctuary in Florida.
For most viewers, the salacious murder-for-hire plot for which Joe Exotic is eventually prosecuted is the most interesting legal aspect of the show. More pertinent to the rising plot, however, is the 2011 trademark lawsuit Carol Baskin filed against Joe Exotic that began a series of negative events that ultimately lead to Exotic’s tragic undoing.
Since 2005, Baskin’s non-profit, Big Cat Rescue Corp., has owned a federally registered trademark for BIG CAT RESCUE and design, Registration No. 2918642. To apparently retaliate against Baskin for organizing protests and speaking out against Exotic and his operations for years, Exotic, through his corporation (G.W. Exotic Memorial Animal Foundation), adopted and began using the nearly identical name “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.” According to the subsequent lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Exotic allegedly boasted on Facebook that he purposefully chose this name to “ruin” the goodwill and reputation of Baskin’s non-profit.
The parties litigated the trademark case for two years until the judge granted summary judgment in favor of Baskin’s non-profit. Soon thereafter, Exotic agreed to enter into a consent judgment with the non-profit. The judgment concluded that Exotic and his companies “infringed upon Plaintiff’s trademark rights and engaged in false designation of origin and unfair competition,” awarded Baskin’s non-profit $953,000 ($653,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in attorney fees and costs), and permanently enjoined Exotic and his companies from ever again using the BIG CAT RESCUE trademark or any confusingly similar mark.
Lessons Learned. The series portrays the trademark lawsuit and resulting monetary judgment as the precipitating event that ruins Exotic financially, causing him to spiral out of control. But other lessons can be gleaned from these events. The most obvious among them: it is neither wise nor advantageous to target personal or business rivals by misusing their trademarks. Trademark rights are serious and must be respected; and infringing them can have significant legal and financial consequences.
So, what could Joe Exotic have done differently? Although intentionally misleading the public by adopting another’s trademark is unlawful, Exotic could have lawfully used the BIG CAT RESCUE mark to refer to Baskin’s non-profit, the mark’s true owner. If done correctly, Exotic’s use of the mark would be considered fair use so long as his references to it were not misleading or unjustified. This means Exotic could have used the mark to criticize and express his opinions about Baskin and her non-profit on social media, the internet, and elsewhere. But he would still need to be careful not to mislead or confuse others into believing he was somehow affiliated with or sponsored by Baskin’s non-profit. Exotic would also need to be careful not to cross the line by making any false or misleading factual statements about Baskin’s non-profit, lest he subject himself to a potential lawsuit for defamation and/or false advertising. Although using Baskin’s BIG CAT RESCUE trademark in these limited ways would not have eliminated the threat of a lawsuit, it would have very likely avoided the ruinous monetary judgment Exotic ultimately incurred. This, in turn, could have avoided the tragic sequence of events that ultimately led to the Tiger King being caged.