Can Chuck Norris sue me for this?
January 30, 2006 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I run a t-shirt site, and have received a "cease and desist" letter from Chuck Norris's lawyers. Anyone have experience with something like this? What are my rights?

The t-shirt has an artist's rendering of chuck, along with the text "What Would Chuck Norris Do?" I commissioned the artwork based on the delta force 2 box art. They want me to stop selling the shirt, and they want to know how many I've sold. I think I might have a right due to parody, and due to the jokes about him which are everywhere. I'm looking for advice and any relevant experience you might have.
posted by thebbxx to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (30 answers total)
Of course, IANAL, but I took a look at the shirt you're selling, and I seriously don't think you will be protected by parody. You are making money off of the unauthorized use of his name and likeness, plain and simple. They will sue you, and you will lose. I suggest that you send them an apology, tell them it is a new shirt design and you haven't even sold any yet, and that you hope there are no hard feelings. Hopefully the problem will go away.
posted by spilon at 1:46 PM on January 30, 2006

Cease and desist. And talk to a lawyer.

You do not have to respond in any way to their letter and you should not give them any information about how many shirts you may or may not have sold without talking to a lawyer first.

And obviously IANAL and TINLA.
posted by unSane at 1:50 PM on January 30, 2006

Name and likeness are broadly protected under laws of many states, including California, New York, and Virginia, just to name three off the top of my head. Depending on your state, you're probably looking at similar laws.

If you choose to tell them how many you're sold, do not lie to them about how many. You will probably want to consult a local lawyer if you've made any significant money off the shirts; otherwise, you might just cough up any profit you've made.

Parody is probably not going to be helpful to you here; even if it was, you'd probably have to pay a lawyer to avail yourself of that defense.

Oh, yes, if you're "in business" you probably ought to have a lawyer on retainer anyway, especially if your shirts are in any way controversial.
posted by mikewas at 1:53 PM on January 30, 2006

Damn. So much for my "What Would Johnny Cash Do?" bracelets...
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:54 PM on January 30, 2006

Given my understanding of parody law, I think you can make a strong case that your shirt design is protected. However, this is not legal advice. You should still cease and desist with the selling/marketing of the shirt, and talk to a lawyer before resuming it. How much money are you making off that particular shirt? Unless it's a whole shitload, it's not worth the legal fees you're liable to incur whether or not you eventually win the case.
posted by TunnelArmr at 1:55 PM on January 30, 2006

Also... the little pop up mouseover implies that you have Chuck's blessing. I would at least take the shirt off the site until you solve the problem.
posted by lobstah at 2:01 PM on January 30, 2006

If you think they'll be popular, try to make an authorized sale.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:06 PM on January 30, 2006

Talk to a lawyer.
posted by raedyn at 2:07 PM on January 30, 2006

Talk to a lawyer, and next time you might want to post this in law & government since you are clearly not asking for advice on marketing/designing/creating your t-shirt, rather you are asking for advice on how to respond to a legal problem.
posted by MeetMegan at 2:12 PM on January 30, 2006

I'm the one who suggested thebbxx should ask on askme. I disagree that he should immediately take the shirt down until he figures out exactly what is and isn't protected.
posted by delmoi at 2:15 PM on January 30, 2006

Send the notice to Chilling Effects and they'll add your letter to their database and may eventually comment on what some of the legal jargon in it means.

This will not constitute legal advice to you regarding your particular situation, so I suggest that you speak to a lawyer about exactly what your rights and obligations are and how much energy you're willing to put into holding onto those rights -- Norris may actually intend to sue, or he may not be willing to do more than bluster. You can't really find out until you talk to a lawyer, though. An initial conference shouldn't put you out more than a couple hundred; is it worth that given how much you're making on the shirts?

Also, don't burn any bridges; if this really is a popular design and isn't disparaging to Norris, they might be willing to license his name/image for a cut of the profit.
posted by rkent at 2:24 PM on January 30, 2006

On further reflection, perhaps you could get away with a shirt with the slogan (but no image):

"Who Would Chuck Sue?"

Make sure your liability insurance is paid up first.
posted by mikewas at 2:29 PM on January 30, 2006

There is a business argument for not ceasing yet... The Chuck Norris phase is only going to be hip for another 2 or 3 weeks. Maybe you could use the profits to pay for the lawyer when you get sued.

Having worked at a law firm (not as a lawyer... as a dude who moves boxes) my opinion is obviously worth its weight in gold. I agree that this doesn't count as parody... but even if it did - a big law firm doesn't need to be right to make you go bankrupt. Half of these guys are just corporate mafia twisting people’s arms till they get what they want. Good luck....
posted by meta x zen at 2:37 PM on January 30, 2006

IANAL, but my understanding of the law is that exemptions for parody are a lot narrower than what many people think. Basically, the copyrighted material you're using has to be the same thing you're making fun of. You can use Mickey Mouse to make fun of Mickey Mouse. (Won't stop Disney's lawyers from coming after you, but you theoretically should win the case.) You can't use Mickey Mouse to make fun of George W. Bush.

In this case, it seems that you're not making fun of Chuck Norris--you're making fun of "What Would Jesus Do?" so you're not protected just because it's a parody.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2006

tell us how many you sold! it's always good to ask for advice and confess to things on the web!
posted by tiamat at 2:43 PM on January 30, 2006

You'd be better off if your shirt openly mocked Mr. Norris.
posted by bshort at 2:46 PM on January 30, 2006

Norris is legally bound to protect his image, or else he loses some of his rights. His lawyers are just going through the motions -- they don't really want to take you to trial and could give a rat's ass about licensing his image to you.

IANAL, but as someone said above, Fair Use is often trumped by state laws. Recall the recent Schwarzenegger/Governator shirt flap. You could get a lawyer, but they'll only tell you to stop.

Fair Use is muddy law when it comes to parody -- there are very few hard-and-fast rules. IANAL, but I'd keep responding to the letters with further requests for information, and then stop printing shirts only after the Chuck Norris hype died down.
posted by frogan at 3:01 PM on January 30, 2006

Devil's Advocate is correct; AFAIK you can only make a parody defense if Chuck Norris was the target of the parody. Since you're parodying "What Would Jesus Do?", you can't use Chuck Norris.
posted by Justinian at 3:31 PM on January 30, 2006

Fair Use is often trumped by state laws.

It absolutely is not. That is not even possible under the Supremacy Clause. An activity that is not copyright infringement (because of Fair Use or on any other basis) may still violate state laws protecting rights of publicity or similar interests. But federal law is never "trumped" by state law.
posted by rkent at 3:37 PM on January 30, 2006

I believe the Chuck Norris rights of publicity karate skills will defeat your weaker parody / fair use fighting style. :(
posted by jca at 3:48 PM on January 30, 2006

On the plus side, now you know the answer.
posted by yerfatma at 3:58 PM on January 30, 2006

In this case, it seems that you're not making fun of Chuck Norris--you're making fun of "What Would Jesus Do?" so you're not protected just because it's a parody.

That's not really true. There's a huge "Chuck Norris" internet meme going around now, basically along the lines of the. the old SNL "Bill Brasky" thing mixed in with the "Ninja facts" thing. busted tees has a shirt (which doesn't mention chuck by name), and only vaguely looks like him, as do some other sites.
posted by delmoi at 4:24 PM on January 30, 2006

O/T, but I've gotta say: some of your shirts are quite amusing, but the ones about RAPE are just waaaaaaay off base, dude. Those are just plain wrong.
posted by davidmsc at 6:57 PM on January 30, 2006

Cease and desist immediately. Then talk to a lawyer.
posted by cribcage at 7:44 PM on January 30, 2006

delmoi: the busted tees shirt doesn't actually say "Chuck Norris," nor does the advertising say right out that it's Chuck Norris, so much as have a Chuck Norris-esque image. (It's a fine line, but obviously, I have no legal knowledge that I haven't picked up in passing.) Basically they're not profiting off his name, or an image that is obviously him (and drawn from presumably copywrighted box art).

Off topic: Also, seriously, sexism? Not funny. Rape? Really not funny. Pedophilia? Really deeply not funny.
posted by SoftRain at 8:44 PM on January 30, 2006

There is no chance that Chuck Norris' trademarks will be licensed to you considering the subject matter of the other shirts on your site. . . In fact, the other shirts are probably what prompted them sending you the letter in the first place. His right to not have his name associated with the "humor" involved with the subjects of rape and pedophilia easily trump your right to use his name. If not legally, then at least morally.

He can sue. And he will win.
posted by BrandonAbell at 11:41 PM on January 30, 2006

Best answer: What a coincidence, I came across your site a week ago through a banner ad (money well spent on your behalf). Back then I figured that you probably didn't have the rights to Chuck Norris's image and mentally gave you about 2 months before the C&D. Who knew his lawyers were so on the ball?
Honestly, what did you expect? The man makes his living from his carefully cultivated image, he is well within his rights to sue you into oblivion. Unless you do some groveling you could find yourself at the end of a very expensive lawsuit that you have no chance of winning. Even settling out of court may get expensive, you would probably be asked to pay his fees plus a percentage of any profits you have made (and that percentage may be over 100%). My advice (IANAL) is to stop selling the shirts, plead ignorance, apologize and hope for the best.
That is not what Chuck Norris would do, but it's what you should do.
Besides, this is Chuck Norris we are talking about. I am surprised you haven't already suffered from a short roundhouse kick-related illness.
posted by AndrewStephens at 12:50 AM on January 31, 2006

delmoi: the busted tees shirt doesn't actually say "Chuck Norris," nor does the advertising say right out that it's Chuck Norris, so much as have a Chuck Norris-esque image

That's why I said "busted tees has a shirt (which doesn't mention chuck by name)".
posted by delmoi at 8:11 AM on January 31, 2006

My point was that that's very different from having a t-shirt where they are profiting off his name.
posted by SoftRain at 6:52 PM on January 31, 2006

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