Adam Houldsworth

  • Netflix cease-and-desist letter praised online
  • Streaming service enforced rights with humour and a light touch
  • Shows that creative enforcement can boost public perceptions

A cease-and-desist letter sent by Netflix to a bar that was using its trademark without permission has drawn effusive praise from online media outlets. The streaming service adopted a good-humoured approach, empathising with the infringer’s love of its brand and politely requesting an end to the infringement. In doing so, it has shown how large brands can avoid accusations of ‘trademark bullying’ when enforcing their rights.

The letter was sent to The Upside Down, a Chicago pop-up bar themed on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Having opened in August with the initial intention of operating for six weeks, the venue planned to extend its lifespan until after the show’s second season premieres in October. However, it had not sought or received Netflix’s permission to use its protected branding.

Writing to request an end to the use of its trademark, Netflix did not address the bar’s owners in threatening terms or legalistic language. Instead, it appealed to the owners’ appreciation of creativity and engaged with their shared appreciation of the Stranger Things brand, inserting references to characters and phrases from the show throughout the letter.

“Look, I don’t want you to think I’m a total wastoid, and I love how much you guys love the show”, the letter opens, “but unless I’m living in the Upside Down, I don’t think we did a deal with you for this pop-up”. It continues: “You’re obviously creative types, so I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s important to us to have a say in how our fans encounter the worlds we build”. Making its point firmly and clearly, but humorously and politely, the letter states: “We’re not going to go full Dr Brenner on you, but we ask that you please 1) not extend the pop-up beyond its 6 week run ending September, and 2) reach out to us for permission if you plan to do something like this again.”

The correspondence not only achieved its desired result – Jared Saul, owner of the bar, confirmed that it would close at the end of the month – but avoided the negative publicity that can arise when a multinational brand enforces its rights against unlicensed but friendly users of its trademarks. On the contrary, Netflix elicited a torrent of internet praise for its handling of the situation. Local news website DNAinfo reported on the “super classy letter”, describing it as “adorably nerdy”, and emphasising Saul’s lack of hard feelings towards the corporation. There was also positive coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and Fox News, while one blog lauded it as “the best cease-and-desist letter you’ve ever seen”.

On social media, where reaction can often be the most negative, the responses similarly lauded Netflix for its enforcement approach. On Reddit, one user commented that the move was “totally reasonable and nice of them”, with another calling the move “brilliant”, adding: “In the age of Twitter, you don't want to anything to be used against you. Now it makes the pop-up look like bad guys for not reaching out to them.”

This is only the latest example that demonstrates why trademark enforcement need not overspill into negative publicity. As World Trademark Review reported, Jack Daniel’s enjoyed a similarly glowing response to a 2012 cease-and-desist letter it sent to an author whose cover artwork allegedly mimicked its trademark. The recipient, Patrick Wensink, posted the letter online, describing it as “perhaps, the most polite cease-and-desist letter ever written”. The famous whiskey brand received warm plaudits online for requesting that the design be changed for next edition (rather than demanding that the book be withdrawn immediately) and for its offer to help pay for a new design.

The takeaway from the Netflix letter, then, is that enforcement efforts handled creatively can actually boost public perceptions of a brand, rather than risking an online backlash. That is not to say that a light-hearted response is always possible or desirable – a more belligerent approach is necessary when dealing with flagrant infringement – but it can sometimes be a good way to show off what is best about a brand.

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