Trademark owners regularly overreach. They often threaten or sue people they have no business suing, including satirists, parodists, non-commercial users, and gripe sites. When they do, they often justify their aggressive legal conduct by pointing to the need to protect their trademarks by policing infringement. Courts have in fact indicated at various points that policing is, if not strictly necessary, at least a way to strengthen a mark. But courts have never held that efforts to block speech-related uses are necessary or even helpful in obtaining a strong mark. Several scholars have accordingly argued that overzealous policing is unnecessary, that it has harmful effects, and that we ought to punish it. But trademark owners continue to do it, in part because it is largely (though not completely) costless and because if there is even a chance a failure to police will cost you your trademark you won’t want to take the chance. So trademark law currently not only doesn’t prevent overreaching; it affirmatively encourages it.
In this article, I suggest a way that we can align trademark owner enforcement incentives with good public policy. The presence of unauthorized parodies, satires, and complaint sites involving a mark should be evidence of the fame of the mark, and perhaps even a requirement for status as a famous mark. Taking this approach would be consistent with what we know about how society interacts with trademarks. Famous marks become part of a social conversation in a way that ordinary marks don’t. My approach has empirical support: the best-known brands draw more parodies and criticism sites than non-famous marks, and those parodies don’t interfere with the fame of the mark. And it would give trademark owners an affirmative reason to leave critics, satirists, and parodists alone.