Opinion: MoveOn.org’s thin skin
This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.
MoveOn.org’s excessively discounted broadside against General David Petraeus in the New York Times two weeks ago won’t rank as its most successful tactic. The full-page nastygram appears not only to have solidified Republican opposition in the Senate for proposals to curtail the Iraq war effort, but also to have shaken the group’s rich Hollywood funding base.
So it’s not too surprising that the liberal advocacy group would be a mite touchy from all the blowback online, even though it should be used to the abuse by now. So touchy, in fact, that it’s been sending out cease-and-desist letters to CafePress, a website that lets people offer custom-designed t-shirts, coffee mugs and the like for sale. Last week it demanded that the site remove eight items, arguing that they violated MoveOn’s merchandising trademarks.
Trademark law doesn’t confer monopoly rights over all uses of a registered phrase or symbol, however, and it wasn’t created simply to protect the trademark owner’s interests. Instead, it’s designed to protect consumers against being misled or confused about brands. The courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of parodies and critiques; that’s why www.famousbrandnamesucks.com doesn’t violate famousbrandname’s trademark. And most, if not all, of the items targeted by MoveOn were clearly designed to razz it, not to trick buyers into thinking they were the group’s products.
Beyond that, it’s amazing that MoveOn would try to squelch political speech. That’s another clear purpose of the targeted items. Take, for example, this message on a t-shirt designed by a lifelong Democrat from Southern California:
General Petraeus has done more for this country than MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org, the worst friend a Democrat could have! Move Away from Move On!
To its credit, CafePress refused to take down five bumper stickers, and it reinstated a t-shirt that it had taken down briefly in response to MoveOn’s initial request. ‘While we understand that negative commentary is unsavory, our shopkeepers’ parodies of the MoveOn.org trademark are permissible here, especially when one considers the First Amendment implications raised by the social and political importance of your organization, the policies it advocates, and the countervailing messages conveyed by the parodies,’ wrote Daniel Pontes of CafePress to Carrie Olson, MoveOn’s chief operating officer. Olson had been the one requesting the takedown.
CafePress and MoveOn declined to discuss the episode on the record. The anonymous designer of the t-shirt mentioned above withdrew her creation anyway, explaining in a note on her CafePress page that she didn’t want to fight ‘a large group with the money to run ads in the NY Times demeaning a four star general.’ Not that her t-shirts were flying off the virtual CafePress shelves; she’d yet to record her first sale after a week and a half on the site.
Perhaps the most delicious irony here is that MoveOn hasn’t exactly been scrupulous in its regard to other people’s intellectual property. After all, it seems to have borrowed the Petraeus/Betray Us rhyme from a familiar radio host -- without crediting him, of course.