Absurd Retraction Demand from IMAX in the name of Trademark Infringement
On June 16, 2015, Ars Technica received a retraction demand from IMAX, requesting Ars to retract a published story that contains a brief reference to IMAX. In a letter written to Ars, IMAX’s Deputy General Counsel G. Mary Ruby wrote: “Any unauthorized use of our trademark is expressly forbidden.”
The letter is surprising in several ways. First of all, the published article is not about IMAX, but the newest version of a virtual reality system called SteamVR made by Valve Software. Second, the single reference to IMAX is simply a comparison between IMAX and SteamVR, which attempts to show that the experience with SteamVR is as great as having an IMAX theatre at home.
Nevertheless, IMAX apparently did not view such a comment as a compliment, but instead as an act of trademark infringement.
IMAX’s reaction is absurd in a sense that they believe trademark owners are entitled to control and censor any speech about their products. The reality is, however, standard trademark law determines trademark infringement only by detecting whether there would be a “likelihood of confusion” between two products. The standard would apply if Ars starts selling movie tickets, leading to confusion among consumers. However, nobody will confuse reading an article about SteamVR with watching a movie.
It is important for trademark owners to understand what trademark law protects. Trademark law provides protection only for distinctive marks to avoid confusion between products and services. It does not, by any means, give trademark owners right to control or silence people’s speech.