The Briefing by the IP Law Blog

The Briefing by the IP Law Blog


Evel Knievel IP Lawsuit Against Disney Crashes and Burns

September 16, 2022

In this episode of The Briefing by the IP Law Blog, Scott Hervey and Josh Escovedo provide an update on the IP dispute between the heirs of Evel Knievel and Disney, over claims of similarities between the late daredevil and the “Toy Story 4” character Duke Caboom.

Watch this episode here.

Show Notes:

Josh

The Ninth Circuit refused to revive a lawsuit filed by Evel Knievel’s son alleging that Disney infringed his company’s intellectual property and publicity rights associated with Evel Knievel by creating the Canadian stuntman character Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4. That’s what we’ll discussing on this installment of the briefing by the IP law blog.

Josh

In October 2021, Evel Knievel’s son, through his company K and K Promotions, Inc., filed suit against Disney claiming that Disney’s creation of the Toy Story 4 character Duke Caboom, a Canadian motorcycle stuntman, infringed the company’s IP and publicity rights related to Evel Knievel. The District Court dismissed the matter in response to a motion to dismiss, finding that the challenged product is an expressive work under Rogers v. Grimaldi, and that Duke Caboom clearly has artistic relevance and was not explicitly misleading.

Scott

But Knievel’s son was obviously displeased with this ruling, and so he appealed to the Ninth Circuit, hoping the appellate court would revive his case. Much to his chagrin, he learned that he does not have a friend in the Ninth Circuit.

Josh

I think that’s fair statement, Scott. The Ninth Circuit essentially echoed the District Court and found that the Rogers test applied to the case, that Caboom did have artistic relevance, and that K&K did not alleged sufficient facts to show that the character was explicitly misleading as to its source. The Ninth Circuit stated that the “explicitly misleading” test imposes a “high bar that requires the use to be an explicit indication, overt claim, or explicit misstatement about the source of the work.” In evaluating whether the use of a mark is explicitly misleading, we consider “(1) the degree to which the junior user uses the mark in the same way as the senior user and (2) the extent to which the junior user has added his or her own expressive content to the work beyond the mark itself.” The Ninth Circuit found that neither consideration was met in this instance.

Scott

For starters, the Ninth Circuit found that, unlike Evel Knievel, Duke Caboom is a fictional character in an animated film about toys that come to life. The Ninth Circuit also found that Disney added significant expressive content to the mark to make it different from Evel Knievel.

Josh

Right, for example, Disney created a character with a different name, appearance, and backstory than Evel Knievel. Disney never suggested that Evel Knievel was involved in Toy Story 4, and Evel Knievel was never even mentioned in the film. For these reasons, the Court found the dismissal under Rogers was appropriate.

Scott

The Court also addressed the district court’s dismissal of the right of publicity claim under the transformative use defense. The Ninth Circuit found that K&K did not challenge the applicability of the defense to such a claim under Nevada law. To determine if a use is transformative, courts consider various factors that balance the defendant’s First Amendment rights with the Plaintiff’s claimed right of publicity.

Josh

The Ninth Circuit found those factors favored Disney. The Ninth Circuit stated that: The Duke Caboom action figure is “more than a mere likeness or literal depiction” of Evel Knievel. Id. at 1275 (quotations omitted). Even if the character may be generically reminiscent of Knievel to some extent, the district court properly concluded that it is “not a literal depiction,” and instead shares general features basic to stuntmen. Moreover, the economic value of the toy action figure does not derive from Evel Knievel’s persona. Id. at 1274. Instead,


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