M.I.A. has taken to her Twitter account to post a copy of an official letter that was sent to her record label, Universal Music, from the Paris Saint-Germain football club. The letter, dated December 14, 2015, accuses the singer, whose real name is Mathangi Abulpragasam, of having “unduly taken advantage from the considerable reputation of our club” by wearing a Paris Saint-Germain shirt in the music video for her recent song “Borders.” In fact, towards the end of the video, M.I.A. wears what appears to be a potential parody of the official PSG jersey. While the jersey very closely resembles the club’s official jersey, the “Fly Emirates,” the club’s official jersey sponsor that appears on the team’s jerseys, is changed to “Fly Pirates.”
In response to the video, which depicts migrants climbing fences and packing into boats in a commentary on the recent Syrian refugee crisis, PSG’s deputy CEO, Jean Claude Blanc, writes, "More than being surprised, we simply do not understand why we are associated, through our logo and the official jersey of our team's players, to such denunciation […] We consider that the use of our brand and image in a video clip denouncing the treatment of refugees is a source of discredit to our club and distorts its public communication policy.”
It is currently unclear whether PSG plans to take legal action (some sites are suggesting that PSG has, in fact, filed suit). Yahoo Sports reports, "The club has accused M.I.A. of causing harm to their brand and gave the singer 24 hours to withdraw the video, stop using the PSG brand and compensate the club."
Assuming that the football club has already or plans to file suit, it seems the singer may have a reasonably strong argument that the jersey amounts to parody (a simple form of entertainment conveyed by juxtaposing the irreverent representation of the trademark with the idealized image created by the mark’s owner) and that as a result, she is free from publicity violations and/or trademark infringement liability.
While many courts have not been given the chance to rule on parody in recent years (as most cases have tended to settle out of court), a recent ruling by the Southern District of New York (SDNY) has shed some favorable light on the defense of parody. SDNY Judge Jesse M. Furman ruled this past week in the case that Louis Vuitton filed against canvas bag company, My Other Bag, in which LV argued that the company infringed its trademarks and copyrights by printing close replicas of its bags on canvas bags. MOB countered by asserting the defense of parody, holding that its bags served to comment on Louis Vuitton, its cultivation of “the image of exclusivity and refinery,” and its practice of producing luxury bags that “cannot be used to carry around, say, dirty gym clothes or groceries, while its casual canvas totes can.”
According to a rather strongly-worded decision, Furman held that MOB’s canvas totes, which replicate a number of particular Louis Vuitton bag styles (including the Speedy and Neverfull) and specific Louis Vuitton trademarks and copyrights, amount to parodies and thus, are not actionable sources of trademark infringement or dilution.
As for whether this case law would apply, it depends on where PSG decides to file suit. While M.I.A. personally resides in Los Angeles, her record label, Universal, is based, in part, in New York, thereby making the SDNY court a potentially viable venue.
As for whether this case law would apply, it depends on where PSG decides to file suit. While M.I.A. personally resides in Los Angeles, her record label, Universal, is based, in part, in New York, thereby making the SDNY court a potentially viable venue. Moreover, it would require M.I.A. to show that the jersey in its altered form (reading “Pirates” as opposed to “Emirates”) comments on the PSG entity and that the altered jersey communicates to a consumer that “an entity separate and distinct from the trademark owner is poking fun at a trademark or the policies of its owner.”
The singer seems to be alluding to some deeper meaning behind the alteration of the jersey in recent tweets (see below). However, given the very case-by-case nature of how parody is decided, it is difficult to predict how a court would rule.
Regardless of whether the parties pursue legal action, the cease and desist letter and subsequent media attention it has caused is arguably a worse move – in terms of PR – than the appearance of the jersey in MIA’s video. As Dazed noted, “M.I.A has come out in combative mood, retweeting comments suggesting this is a ‘bad PR move’ and pinning their legal threat to the top page of her Twitter (followers: 661k).” And the singer does not appear to be giving in. Not only has she not removed the video, she has changed her Twitter photo to one of her wearing the jersey in question. Stay tuned ...