Naughty Muppet Antics May Infringe on Trademark

June 12, 2018

The Happytime Murders is an upcoming Hollywood movie that showcases a world where Muppets®* and humans live together, but someone is going around killing Muppets. Melissa McCarthy portrays the detective trying to solve the murders.

While, showcasing a world where Muppets and humans can co-exist is not in itself problematic, the trailer for the movie has raised a few eyebrows. An early trailer release of the movie shows Muppets using coarse language, drugs and engaging in activities never before seen in Jim Henson productions. The most problematic part of the trailer is the tagline, “NO SESAME. ALL STREET.” While a clever marketing scheme, the tagline has ruffled some feathers on Sesame Street.

The creators of Sesame Street®** have filed a lawsuit to enjoin the movie’s maker from using the tagline and thereby appropriating the Sesame Street mark and brand.

For those who grew up watching Sesame Street, it has allowed children a refuge on television for a place to learn, grow, and imagine. Whether it was counting along with Count von Count, becoming immersed in Elmo’s World, learning how to question everything from Big Bird, being grouchy with Oscar the Grouch, or learning to enjoy cookies as much as the Cookie Monster, Sesame Street has been an educational place for children to develop for generations.

Sesame Street is the most awarded television show in history with 118 Emmy Awards. It has won numerous other awards and grants. It reaches over 190 million children around the world. Sesame Street has very notable brand recognition in the United States and around the world. It is an educational brand, which the creators of Sesame Street are resolute to protect.

The lawsuit alleges:

Defendants’ widely-distributed marketing campaign features a just-released trailer with explicit, profane, drug-using, misogynistic, violent, copulating, and even ejaculating puppets, along with the tagline “NO SESAME. ALL STREET.” Defendants do not own, control or have any right to use the SESAME STREET mark. Instead, they are distributing a trailer that deliberately confuses consumers into mistakenly believing that Sesame is associated with, has allowed, or has even endorsed or produced the movie and tarnishes Sesame’s brand. Defendants headline their marketing materials with a tagline that invokes the well-known SESAME STREET mark and references the award-winning children’s preschool program.

As evidence for the confusion caused by The Happytime Murders and their tagline, the plaintiffs point to the movie’s social media marketing on Facebook and other channels promoting and featuring the tagline. In addition, the plaintiffs highlight a tweet from Fandango – the leading online movie ticket seller – that includes the tagline. Moreover, the plaintiffs argue that the tagline incorrectly emphasizes an association between itself and Sesame Street. They highlight a comment on their Facebook page that mentions the tagline.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs also point to the fact that Jim Henson Company is a producer for the movie which is significant because Jim Henson created the Muppets and owns the intellectual property. Henson conveyed the copyright ownership of the Muppets to Sesame Street in 2000.

The plaintiffs asked the court to issue a permanent injunction on the movie’s use of the tagline and for a jury trial and punitive damages.

The United States District Court in the Southern District of New York denied the plaintiff’s request for temporary restraining order. Following the denial, the plaintiffs gave notice for voluntary dismissal without prejudice.

You can read the complaint here: SESAME WORKSHOP, Plaintiff, v. STX PRODUCTIONS, LLC, STX Financing, LLC Filmworks, Inc., Defendants.

You can follow the docket here: Sesame Workshop v. STX Productions, LLC et al

Image Source: REUTERS/Larry Downing

*Muppet, Muppets, and the Muppet Characters are registered trademarks of The Muppets Studio, LLC.

**Sesame Street and associated characters, trademarks, and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop.

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