Saturday, June 4, 2016

YETI Coolers Trademark Claims Just the Latest to Hurt Artists


I've been making art and selling it on print-on-demand companies since 2012. In that time, I've witnessed the ridiculous overreach of companies claiming exclusive rights to common, generic words. I remember when I first started, I read about a fellow artist who was upset because she had received a cease-and-desist letter from lawyers claiming to represent author Stephenie Meyer. The letter claimed that the artist had no right to sell art associated with Meyer's novels. The artist was heartbroken and scared to receive the letter. Her crime? She took a photograph of the sunset and labeled it "twilight."

A short time later, I received the same letter. I laughed at first. I couldn't believe that this novelist's lawyers actually thought they now owned the common word "twilight" in all its iterations. After all, we're talking about a simple dictionary word that has been in use since the 14th century. Suddenly, artists couldn't label their work with this common word without receiving a threatening letter.

"Okay," you might say. "Just find a synonym and move on. Call it 'dusk,' 'evening,' 'sundown.'"

Other artists rolled their eyes and said, "It's just a scare tactic. Go ahead and use the word 'twilight.' Meyer's people can't really sue you if it's not related to her novel."

That seems logical. It would be pretty hard for these lawyers to prove that a freelance artist's picture of the sunset infringes on their client's melodramatic vampire-werewolf romance. But here is the problem:

A lot of the time, the print-on-demand site owners choose to err on the side of caution. In other words, no matter how much your work differs from the trademark, the POD is not willing to take the risk.

And suddenly, as more and more of these erroneous trademark claims pile up, you wind up with a situation where artists get creatively boxed in. The claims grow increasingly farfetched, such as the despotic guy who tried to claim he owned a math symbol:

 Pi symbol fiasco

More on the Pi symbol fiasco

Another great article about the problem

YETI Coolers is the Latest to Overreach

The latest company to jump on the overzealous-trademark-enforcement bandwagon is a company called YETI Coolers. In a similar situation to the pi debacle, YETI lawyers contacted Zazzle and claimed that no artists are allowed to use the generic term "yeti" in any artwork, no matter what the context. Of course, as they always do, Zazzle complied and swiftly removed all Bigfoot artwork containing the word "yeti," which is a word that is part of Himalayan culture.  

As you can see from my last blog post, I had a line of designs with a Bigfoot drawing on them and a yeti pun. The drawing wasn't so great; this was one of the first designs I made when I started selling my work. But I was proud of it because it sold and it made my family laugh. I enjoyed taking my yeti and putting him in different settings for different holidays. Suddenly, he was showing up at your door with a bouquet of flowers for Valentine's Day. Then he was wishing you happy birthday or a merry Christmas. Most recently, he arrived with a big grin on his face to wish your dad a happy Father's Day.

The pun I made was my own creation. The drawing was my own creation. I never imagined that using a simple word like "yeti" in the middle of a sentence would invite the wrath of a team of lawyers.

I don't have a conclusion for this blog post, because there is none. Of course, I reached out to Zazzle and the YETI Cooler company and was met with a brick wall. I just wanted to write this post to show the perspective of an artist and to explain how creativity often gets stomped on by greed.

The whole situation makes me feel like an awkward, lumbering outsider who has no voice and - at the moment - would much rather disappear into the woods. There's a word for the sort of creature I feel like today, but I'm not allowed to use it.


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