Occupying the 'Wall Street Journal'

The protest movement is appropriating the names and logos of corporate-owned publications. Is it copyright infringement or satire?

occupied-tribune.jpg

Courtesy of Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson had published only two issues of his Occupied Oakland Tribune when he received a cease and desist order from The Oakland Tribune's parent company, the Bay Area News Group. 

"The first thing I thought was, Is this real? The whole thing just kind of blew me away," he says.

The Oakland Tribune contends that Johnson's use of their name, albeit "Occupied," and an altered Tribune tower logo are infringements on the company's trademark. In their letter and The Oakland Tribune's own subsequent coverage, the Bay Area News Group's lawyer Andrew Huntington states that Johnson must stop publication and hand over his occupiedoaktrib.org URL immediately or face a lawsuit. 

Huntington, who did not respond for comment, said that Occupied Oakland Tribune's name and logo were "a problem," though the Bay Area News Group was considering dissolving the Oakland Tribune until late 2011 amidst a round of heavy cutbacks.

"As soon as I had any time to think about it, it became more and more clear that we can win this thing," says Johnson. "I never wanted to give in on it. I never wanted to roll over and give up." 

As one Twitter commenter quipped, after donating $100 to Johnson's Kickstarter campaign to fund the paper, "BANG is the sound you hear when you shoot yourself in the foot."

From the Occupied Los Angeles Times to the Occupied Washington Post, more than a dozen "Occupied" branded independent newspapers have sprouted since that ever-tented movement took root across America last fall. Many of them take the names of the biggest corporate-owned newspapers in their hometowns. Some, like the Occupied Boston Globe, opted to change their names (they are now the Boston Occupier). But most have stood their ground.

"I think it is great how it became a meme so quickly," says Arun Gupta, one of the founders of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. "Like many other aspects of Occupy Wall Street, this idea just spread rapidly across the country." The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a project originally put together by Gupta and a collective of other Occupy Wall Street activists, raised more than $75,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. 

"It's direct action -- another form of occupying," says Gupta of the newspapers -- physical protest objects, and historic artifacts. "They make the movement real in a way digital media never can."

To Gupta's knowledge, The Occupied Wall Street Journal hasn't received any complaint -- or praise -- from the original Wall Street Journal"In fact, all the media reports would actually say the WSJ declined to comment," says Gupta.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune has had a less easy time of it. 

"The Chicago Tribune might not be pleased by our use of the name, but right now we have no plans to change it," says Joe Macare, one of the journalists and publishers with The Occupied Chicago Tribune. "We're confident that no one could confuse the two, but just in case, we want to stress that we don't have any association with the billion-dollar Tribune Company corporation or their reporting for the 1%. The Occupied Chicago Tribune name clearly constitutes political speech and satire, protected by the First Amendment."

The Occupied Chicago Tribune has not received a formal cease and desist order from the Chicago Tribune -- at least not yet. A source with knowledge of to the Occupied Chicago Tribune's legal situation who preferred not to be identified said the Chicago Tribune's lawyer had pushed hard in the company's demands in informal negotiations. "Occupied Chicago Tribune said okay, we'll use 'Chicago's Occupied Tribune.' The lawyer objected. So they said okay, we'll change it to 'Occupied Tribune,' and the lawyer objected. They said okay, we'll change it to 'Occupied Chicago Times.' The lawyer objected again."

"Then he allegedly said something like, 'You cannot have anything that has a T in the name.' And that's when finally it had reached such a point of absurdity that they decided to fight back."

Corynne McSherry, attorney and Intellectual Property advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says attempts at quashing perceived trademark infringement often fail on both legal and public relations grounds -- and even backfire. "They call more attention to the kind of satire that's happening in the first place," says McSherry. 

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Susie Cagle is a journalist and editorial cartoonist in Oakland, CA. She has written and drawn for the American Prospect, AlterNet, the Awl, GOOD, and others. She was the first reporter arrested while covering Occupy in the Bay Area.

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