By Timothy Geigner
If I had to come up with a more 2020 headline than the above, I’m not sure I could. Still, this is also in the Techdirt wheelhouse as far as topics are concerned. For background, I think it’s fair to say that the Trump Campaign, and Donald Trump as well, have both built a reputation for themselves as being particularly litigious when it comes to all things IP, defamation, etc. etc. amen. Whatever your politics, it simply can’t be denied that on First Amendment grounds, our current president and his organizations have an abysmal reputation on matters of free speech, so long as that speech could potentially pierce the notoriously thin skin of Donald Trump.
This continues to today, of course. You can see it when there are executive orders issued just because social media companies point the public to facts about the President’s claim. You can also see it more recently in the Trump campaign issuing a takedown with Redbubble for a parody cartoon over the trademark on MAGA hats.
The Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Nick Anderson has described Donald Trump as an “adolescent wannabe authoritarian”, after the US president’s re-election campaign failed to pull one of Anderson’s cartoons mocking Trump’s inaccurate suggestion that injecting disinfectant could protect against Covid-19. Anderson put his cartoon The Trump Cult up for sale on the online retailer Redbubble this month. The illustration shows Trump with supporters in Maga hats, serving them a drink that has been labeled “Kool-Aid”, then “Chloroquine” and finally “Clorox”, a US bleach brand.
But Redbubble pulled Anderson’s illustration from sale following a trademark infringement claim made by Trump’s campaign organisation, Donald J Trump for President Inc. Writing on the Daily Kos, Anderson said that he believed the claim was made due to his depiction of Maga hats, and described the situation as “absurd”.
Frankly, “absurd” doesn’t even begin to describe it. All kinds of speech are protected by the First Amendment, whatever the trademark rights any holder might have. Political speech is probably more revered in that regard than any other speech. The very idea that an artist couldn’t create parody art that comments on a particular public figure and/or his or her voting block is so completely the antithesis of American history that one should really just have to yell something like, “The Federalist Papers!” at this sort of thing and be done with it.
This country was built on political parody. And, frankly, cartoon parody in particular. The Trump campaign does, or at least should, know this. Redbubble does too, which explains the fairly very good mea culpa that it issued when the site reinstated the cartoon.
Redbubble reinstated Anderson’s cartoon this week, saying that it strives “to respect IP rights and freedom of speech, but we sometimes make mistakes, as we did here … We’re sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.” In a statement, Anderson praised Redbubble for recognising the error, but said there were some “troubling issues” raised by the affair, including that the cartoon was removed less than 24 hours after he posted it, before he had received a single order.
“I doubt anyone had even seen it yet on the site,” he said. “This reveals that the Trump campaign has a system in place, trawling for material they find objectionable. If it happened to me so quickly, it likely has happened to others. How much other content has been removed this way on Redbubble and other sites?”
While fair, the real issue here is that a demand for proactively policing copyright and trademark abuses is a system ripe for abuse, for censorship, and for fallout around the takedown of protected speech. This serves as simply a pointed example of this sort of thing, given that we’re talking about a sitting President’s campaign taking down such political speech. While this was ultimately corrected, the idea that something so American as a political cartoon could have been disappeared, even temporarily, over such a specious trademark claim is highlighting a flaw in the system.
So let’s get it corrected.