In an opinion yesterday, Judge Gardephe dismissed a complaint (see our prior coverage here) brought by Liberty Tax Service against the makers of the TV show “Better Call Saul” for depicting an allegedly similar business, “Sweet Liberty Tax Services,” as a criminal enterprise. In the show, the business is run by Craig Kettleman, who had been convicted of embezzlement in an earlier season but then opened “Sweet Liberty Tax Services” with his wife after being released from prison.
Under Second Circuit law, using a mark in this way is protected so long as it is artistically relevant and not explicitly misleading. Judge Gardephe agreed with the Defendants that the “Sweet Liberty” name was artistically relevant insofar as it was intended to be “richly ironic”:
According to Defendants, viewers “could readily perceive ‘Sweet Liberty’ as a nod to [convicted felon Craig Kettleman’s] release from prison.” The Kettlemans’ use of the name “Sweet Liberty” for their fraudulent tax preparation business, “coupled with an office covered with gaudy symbols of Americana … and a comedically distorted Statute of Liberty inflatable, is richly ironic: … [The Kettlemans] are grifters who wrap themselves with patriotic iconography to cloak their checkered past and ongoing misdeeds.”
Plaintiff responds that Sweet Liberty Tax Services “appears out of nowhere for a single episode of the sixth season series and it has no connection to the show’s storyline.” But the Amended Complaint’s allegations undermine this argument. The Amended Complaint notes that the “Kettlemans were main characters in Better Call Saul’s first season, but exited the series after Craig Kettleman was convicted of embezzlement and went to prison.” After Craig Kettleman’s return to the series following a term of imprisonment, he again commits fraud under the business name “Sweet Liberty”—liberty that is at risk when another character threatens to report the Kettlemans to the IRS.