Show Me the Monet

POSTED BY , ON October 04, 2010, 9 COMMENTS

One of the jobs of the Art Institute’s crack legal department is to help protect the museum’s trademarks. A trademark, as you may already know, is any word, name, symbol, or other device that indicates the source of goods or services. Trademark law protects a trademark owner against the use of a trademark (or any confusingly similar mark) in a way that is likely to cause confusion. A trademark owner, however, must act vigilantly to protect its trademarks.

One way to help protect a trademark is to apply for a federal trademark registration, which, if successful, entitles the owner to exclusive national use of the mark and the ability to use the cool ® symbol. The Art Institute of Chicago has federal registrations for several of its trademarks, including our name, our red square logo, and each of the iconic lion statues that guard the Michigan Avenue entrance. The image above shows one of our certificates of registration.

From time to time, as a part of the Art Institute’s efforts to protect its trademarks, I send “friendly” (to a lawyer, at least) letters to companies that use our trademarks without permission. We aren’t interested in stopping people from snapping personal photos of the lions, but we cannot allow commercial vendors to wrongly imply that the Art Institute offers, sponsors or endorses goods or services that we have never even seen before.

One recent unauthorized commercial product that crossed the line was a t-shirt featuring one of the lions (our registered trademark) over the text “The Art Institute of Chicago” (our registered trademark), along with the phrase “Show Me the Monet” (unlikely to ever be an Art Institute trademark). Concerned that the public might believe that the shirt was sold or approved by the Art Institute, I sent a letter to the vendor which went something like this:  “Dear vendor … our valuable registered trademarks … unauthorized commercial product … likelihood of confusion … knock it off.”

The story has a happy ending, involving no blood or tears. The vendor acknowledged its mistake and offered to do whatever was necessary to secure approval of the shirt. The business people in our Museum Shop worked out an arrangement with the vendor involving some changes to the shirt and a formal license agreement. And thus were the Art Institute’s trademarks and the t-shirt-buying public kept safe from the likelihood of confusion.

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9 Responses to “Show Me the Monet”

  1. Joann Sondy says:

    Turning lemons into lemonade! Wow, amazing that it turned out to benefit both parties without nasty legal involvement. Congrats.

  2. John Novick says:

    Great story! The only element I don’t like is the business about “Show me the Monet” being an unlikely slogan for the AI. I think the institution can do a better job making the world’s greatest art more appealing, more accessible, to young people, and to city residents who don’t think they ‘get’ art. Would love to see a dept in the AI really take this head on, spend some of the money (used for the Modern Wing, for example) on bringing art to the people…all of the people of Chicago…with a passion.

  3. Dan Hartung says:

    Is the illustration the final licensed product, I assume? It’s pretty creative, so I’m glad there was a happy ending. One of my favorite t-shirts ever was an unauthorized Blues Fest design….

  4. Cyrus B says:

    What a nice article, Troy! I like your explanation of how the process works. -Cyrus

  5. Troy says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

    John, I hear you. There has always been some tension between the museum’s goals of being accessible and appealing while being respectful of the art in the collection and maintaining high academic standards. So, it may disappoint some to learn that “Show Me the Monet” was one of the aspects of the design that was changed (to “Look Between the Lions”). However, I’m not personally convinced that associating the Art Institute with a tagline from a 20th century movie is the best way to appeal to young people. I’d like to see the museum use more lolcats references, e.g. “I can haz art?”

  6. Chris Miller says:

    This little episode hi-lites the dual, and sometimes conflicting, public/private status of cultural institutions in America.

    On the one hand, the A.I.C. is a private corporation, and on the other, it sits tax-free on public land because, presumably, it’s primary purpose is to educate the public about art rather than benefit those who run it.

    And wasn’t that little t-shirt already serving that educational purpose?

    Did the A.I.C. legal intervention really end up making it more educational?

    Or, was it just obstructing it ? — by demanding a cut of the proceeds and requiring the designer to change the text.

    BTW — I would say that the lively painting on that shirt is certainly doing justice to the Kemeys’ sculpture, and if the museum’s blog is going to discuss it, the name of the artist ought to be given.

    The excellent painter is probably local, and he/she deserves some recognition.

  7. Troy says:

    Chris, thank you for your comments.

    The purpose of this process was not to demand a cut of the proceeds or to make the shirt more or less educational. All institutions, including not-for-profits like the Art Institute, have the right and responsibility to protect the distinctiveness of their identity and trademarks. It’s how (to paraphrase Dennis Green) everyone knows that we are who they thought we were.

  8. Chris Miller says:

    Thank you for your responses, Troy.

    I still haven’t discovered who painted those magnificent lions for the trademark-infringing t-shirts, though I’ve rounded up a few of the usual suspects, all of whom were flattered by the association.

    The Michigan Avenue lions are a frequent subject for those who paint or print scenes of Chicago. Are all of them liable to receive a “friendly” letter from an A.I.C. lawyer? Could you possibly describe just what changes were made, in the version that you’ve shown, to bring it into compliance?

  9. Troy says:

    Chris, I do not know who did the original painting, which is certainly excellent. I have never sent, and don’t anticipate having to send, a cease-and-desist letter to an artist who makes work depicting the lions. The key issue would be the likelihood of confusion as to source or sponsorship; our friendly attention here was directed to the vendor selling the shirts. It is my understanding that the only changes made were the tagline, the font in which the museum’s name was printed, and the inclusion of an “®” symbol.