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First Amendment: Absolutely Cranky

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The iconic bottle silhouette of Absolut vodka advertising fame has been parodied by fraternities, sports teams, cities, and just about everyone else. But when politics get shaken into the brand's identity, the Swedish distillers get a little belligerent, as Pittsburgh bloggers Maria Lupinacci and David DeAngelo found out two weeks ago.

 

On their blog, www.2politicaljunkies.blogspot.com, the two posted an image created by Lupinacci of President George W. Bush and other prominent administration figures in a bottle, with the caption "Absolut Corruption" beneath. They cross-posted the image to the Daily Kos, and other prominent blogs picked it up.

 

"It got around the internet," says Lupinacci. "It surprised me!" She said blogs around the world, from Brazil to Sweden, picked it up.

 

Then, the cease-and-desist email arrived from V&S, Absolut's parent company.

 

"V&S policy is to never associate ...with a political message of any kind," the email, signed by Jenny Bergquist, a V&S lawyer, reads. "V&S therefore firmly dissociate[s] itself from the advertisement ABSOLUT CORRUPTION and the political message it contains. V&S's [sic] considers your use of the ABSOLUT CORRUPTION advertisement to be a copyright infringement. V&S asserts that you are not making an editorial comment but that you are using the ABSOLUT trademark in order to promote your political message. .... There is also an indication that you intend to sell posters and T-shirts."

 

Reader comments on the Daily Kos clamored for the image to appear on T-shirts and posters, and Lupinacci says she considered creating them, but decided that, since she'd be profiting from the Absolut image, that would certainly be copyright infringement.

 

"I never actually put up, produced or sold any products," she adds.

 

"I've chatted with a couple of attorneys," says DeAngelo. "They've said that as long as there's no money changing hands, it's protected parody."

 

 The alternative newspaper LA Weekly reprinted it -- for free -- as an editorial cartoon, but did not hear from the liquor company, according to the paper's creative director, John Curry.

 

"It seems to be the sort of thing that should be protected as free speech," says Michael Madison, associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, director of the intellectual property certificate program and the author of several blogs. "This is obviously not a real Absolut ad." Had the bloggers sold the imagery, he says, their free-speech protection would be less solid. "It starts to look less like political satire and more like you are feeding on someone else's work."

 

Madison says that the Absolut ad's imagery is so pervasive and recognizable that it's close to becoming a "fair-use" situation.

 

"There are places in the law where really durable works cross over into the broader political discourse," he says. "We all use pop culture references in our ordinary conversations about politics."

 

V&S did not return requests for comment, but the letter says the bloggers have until Nov. 30 to pledge they've stopped using the imagery, and that they've removed the image from their blog. No "or else" was mentioned. The bloggers say they intend to leave the image up.

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