Season 3, Episode 5: Spark of Genius, Tiger TrademarKing – How IP Took Down the ‘Tiger King’ (Blog Post)

By: Audrey Knutson & Catherine Morgan

Hey all you cool cats and kittens! In the midst of a global pandemic, bored citizens across America were given a weird blessing to keep them busy and entertained during stay-at-home orders. A very strange, yet entertaining story of crazy exotic animal owners and their battle against self-proclaimed animal rights activists that turns into much more than a documentary about tigers. Tiger King brings up issues ranging from animal abuse, cult activities, polygamy, murdered husbands, murder-for-hire plots, suicide, and illegal animal trading. As diverse as the issues brought up by Tiger King, surprisingly, the whole story starts with a trademark and copyright lawsuit. We will dive into the specifics of this trademark suit and how it ended with a guy in jail.

First, we will try and do the impossible. We will try and explain what ‘Tiger King’ is within this small blog post. Don’t worry. The story is almost so intense and unbelievable that it is unspoilable. Feel free to read this and still need to watch and rewatch the documentary just to wrap your head around the pure madness. Tiger King is a Netflix documentary series that mainly follows Joe Exotic, the “tiger king.” Joe owns a zoo in Oklahoma which is home to over 200 tigers and many more exotic animals. Other than his famous bleach blonde mullet and handlebar mustache, he is also known for being a gun-slinging homosexual redneck with two husbands (no I’m not kidding). He is not alone in the tiger business either, as the documentary also exposes other tiger park owners such as “Doc” Antle, an eccentric (almost) cult leader with multiple wives, and Mario Tabraue, a drug kingpin known for owning tigers and selling drugs. Joe’s arch-nemesis is Carole Baskins, an animal rights activist who also happens to have an ex-husband who mysteriously “disappeared” leaving her millions. She runs a “sanctuary” for tigers once held in captivity under the name “Big Cat Rescue Corporation.” Carole and Joe duked it out with YouTube videos and advertisement campaigns painting the other as the bad guy for years. The feud comes to a head when Joe decides to re-name his tiger cub petting business “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment Group.”

In an attempt to steal business from Carole’s “Big Cat Rescue Corp.,” Joe Exotic renamed his cub petting business “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” so when potential customers do an online search for “Big Cat Rescue” both Carole and Joe’s businesses come up. His bait and switch were successful, and Baskin said she would receive calls from individuals assuming she was involved in Joe Exotic’s business. He took it a step further and began distributing a photograph owned by “Big Cat Rescue Corp.” on the internet through YouTube videos, Facebook posts, website pages, and other video platforms. Exotic also used marketing material like advertisements and business cards claiming a Florida address in the same area code as Baskin’s Florida-based business.

In January 2011, Baskin filed her first lawsuit against Exotic in a Trademark action in Federal court in Florida. Interestingly enough, Baskin did not have a registered trademark of “Big Cat Rescue” when she sued Exotic! But she was not willing to retract her claws and instead argued that it should have common law protection because it has been used by them for years and that they had pervasive, continuous and exclusive use over the mark, and therefore should own it, otherwise it would confuse the public. This is a valid legal argument in trademark law but instead of rolling the dice Jeff Lowe Vegas Style, Exotic settles for $953,000.

Then, Baskin put even more legal pressure on Exotic and followed with two subsequent copyright lawsuits over the use of the “Big Cat Rescue” name, materials, and photos. For the most part, copyright violations are easier to prove than trademark infringement and Exotic’s posting and reposting of “Big Cat rescue” materials throughout the internet was a textbook case of copyright infringement because in his deposition, Exotic admitted to posting the materials. In fact, Baskin was not the owner of one of the photos in dispute! She acquired the copyright after Exotic had posted the photos, however, the timing does not change the outcome once she did indeed own the rights. Damages for copyright infringement are dictated by law, 17 U.S.C § 504(c)(1). In this case, none of the copyrighted materials were used by commerce by Baskin so the damages were relatively small. The judge awarded a final judgment of $25,000 against Exotic on one of the copyright suits and awarded $50,000 for the remaining copyright suit. Joe Exotic once said, after an employee got her arm eaten by a tiger, “I will never financially recover from this.” In fact, that statement was only foreshadowing, as Exotic would actually never financially recover from these IP lawsuits.

The tiger-loving mullet man was not expecting this heavy judgment against him. For small business owners, a judgement like this could ruin them. Trademark lawsuits can bring not only large attorney’s fees but large damages. No matter what the circumstances are that surround two businesses’ relationship with each other, they must be careful to not let anger and hatred cloud their judgement of whether or not to try and use the other’s intellectual property.

In the end, Baskin filed suits in Oklahoma to force the courts to enforce the payment of the Florida judgments. Baskin was relentless in her pursuit of Joe Exotic and his tiger empire. His wages were garnished, and his banks were subpoenaed. The already multi-millionaire would not let Exotic go, filing suits claiming impermissible transfers of Exotic’s zoo against his mother. In 2019 the affair ended with Exotic penniless and in federal prison on multiple (unrelated) criminal charges. The world has not seen arch enemies like this since Batman and the Joker, Voldemort and Harry Potter, and the Red Sox and Yankees. Did anyone win? Did Carole? Did Joe? One thing’s for certain and that is the tigers did not, and they were the true victims throughout this whole crazy ride.