Ferrari v. Fans: When Consumer Enthusiasm Goes Wrong

March 28, 2014

FerrariWell, is this any way to treat your fans?

Luxury Italian carmaker Ferrari is locked in a lawsuit and counter-suit with the man who founded one of the most popular car pages on Facebook – a fan page devoted to Ferrari vehicles.

As I understand it, Ferrari is worried because the fan page (which uses protected Ferrari material) is so popular and it has no control over it. The fans who started the page are upset because they’ve poured a lot of work into building the fan page’s popularity and resent Ferrari’s efforts to interfere.

What’s really interesting about this story is how it demonstrates the problems companies have with fan-generated works that incorporate trademarked or copyrighted material.

Any company would be delighted to have fans show their fervor for their brand, but when that enthusiasm starts to look like taking liberties with material that’s protected by intellectual property laws, companies find themselves in a sticky situation. Do they step in and risk alienating enthusiastic brand proponents, or do they sit back, let it be and run the risk of losing the ability to control their own image? (This article from the Insurance Journal has a good rundown of issues like this that companies have faced in recent years.)

This is not a new problem per se. Gracen v. Bradford Exchange, 698 F.2d 300 (7th Cir. 1983), in which an artist painted Dorothy from “Wizard of Oz” on a plate without permission from the film studio, happened back when faxes and cordless telephones were still new technology. It’s become easier to “borrow” protected material in the Internet age, though, and vastly easier to share, sell or otherwise hold that work out to the public, so it’s a problem that has grown in frequency, scale and scope.

I doubt that we, as a society, will ever develop a uniform approach to this kind of thing. There are too many players with too many divergent interests for that to ever happen. One would hope it won’t always be as messy as this Ferrari affair, though.