Illegal Jesus Junk Sells

Some Christians are spoofing trademarked logos to make cheesy Jesus-y knockoffs. I don’t know what’s worse: that they lack any creativity or that anyone would actually buy these…

American retailers sell about $4.6 billion worth of Christian products annually, and some are spoofs or spinoffs of commercial logos or brand names. Many such goods are illegal, trademark attorneys say, but companies often are unaware their names are being copied or don’t put up a fight for fear of being labeled anti-faith.

There are “iPray” hats to wear while listening to your iPod, and the logo for the popular “Rock Band” video game was tweaked for a Christian necklace with a pendant shaped like a guitar pick. Preachers are even in on the act: They can buy materials for sermons based on popular TV shows including “Lost” and “Survivor.”

One example:

(By Mark Humphrey, AP)

Not everyone finds these amusing:

Church marketing consultant Brad Abare has seen tons of such stuff and doesn’t like it. He’s even come up with a name for some of it: “Jesus Junk.”

“We think it’s just dumb. It’s not a true reflection of creativity,” said Abare, of the nonprofit Center for Church Communication in Los Angeles.

Abare, the church marketing consultant, just wishes Christians would pay more attention to the commandment “Thou shall not steal.”

“The whole claim for Christians in general is that God is the source of all creativity,” he said. “I think there’s something to being original that will speak to people in a way that we don’t have to copy.”

As the article says, if companies got their lawyers involved, these ripoffs would stop. Unfortunately, some of them are afraid to appear anti-Christian. I’m not sure which companies those are, but since when do companies allow intellectual property to get trumped by Jesus?

It’s not anti-Christian to protect your trademark — it’s the law and Christians shouldn’t be getting special exemptions.

(via Mere Skepticism)

  • http://mypainhurts.blogspot.com bd

    These things have been around for years. I always figured they were legal as parody.

  • Peregrine

    I’m not so sure that’s illegal. It could well fall under parody, and parody and satire are protected. Some of them might even be defensible under fair use.

    To protect a trademark, you have to demonstrate that the infringement is significantly similar to your trademark to be confused with the genuine article. And some of them are different enough from the trademarked logo that they might not apply.

    I’m no expert in copyright law, but I’d imagine some of these might be tough to prove.

  • Fett101

    I thought the commercial nature would overrule their position as parody. Plus they’re not really satirizing the logos in any meaningful way. They’re simply copying the style.

  • http://reanhouse.blogspot.com Sarah

    I bet (jaded misanthrope that I am) that if an atheist tried the same trick, like an iThink hat or something companies would go berserk. I’d wager that the corporate bigwigs are a) christians themselves and don’t want to condemn themselves to hell by being meanies to the church and/or b) they’re afraid of the might of the christian right if they try to stand up for their rights.

    I’m cranky this morning, didn’t sleep well last night so my cynicism is exponentially increased (at least until I get my Timmie’s fix!)

  • Luther

    “Jesus Junk” – seems redundant to me, sort of like “Reasoning Atheist”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I thought the commercial nature would overrule their position as parody.

    That was my understanding. Parody as art is OK, parody as free speech is OK, parody as a business model is intellectual property infringement. Get Out of Hell Free cards, for example, are sold on a non-profit basis.

  • mikespeir

    He’s even come up with a name for some of it: “Jesus Junk.”

    Keith Green was railing against what he called “Jesus junk” lots of years ago.

  • JT

    Seems to me like these companies are setting themselves up to lose their copyright. If a business fails to enforce a copyright, they can lose it. I’d expect presenting evidence that a copyright holder was aware of the sale of the Christian merchandise and made no effort to halt the sale, they might lose the ability to enforce it like the term thermos in the US.

  • Jim H

    Standard disclaimer: IANAL.

    But I understand that even though a parody might be protected under copyright law, it could still infringe upon a trademark. Also, failure to defend a trademark can cost the trademark owner dearly–the next infringer can claim that the failure to defend is an abandonment of the trademark.

    {It looks like @JT and I crossed in the ether…}

  • Brian Macker

    Seems legal to me. Just like those T-shirts that have “Captialism” in the style of the coke logo.

  • Brian Macker

    Off Topic: Norad is spending tax dollars to “track santa”. I’m wondering whether this is an admission that Santa is not a christian religious symbol but rather a secular one. Certainly if Santa were a religious symbol then our military should not be supporting it.

  • Trace

    @ Luther:

    “Jesus Junk” – seems redundant to me,”

    :)

  • http://PrayersToTheAtheistGod.blogspot.com Nathaniel

    Whether something is for profit or not has no impact on whether it is illegal. If you’re convicted, it could have an impact on your sentence, but it doesn’t affect your chances of being convicted.

    Trademark law is intended to protect against impersonation of products. A reasonable person would not think that “Amazing Grace” shirt is an official “American Idol” product, therefore there is no infringement. The trademark owners are probably leaving these cases alone because they’d lose way most of them.

    (I am not a lawyer, I just play one on the internet.)

  • Chris

    I reckon American Idol ought to retaliate by having Jesus as a contestant next year.

  • Julie

    My boyfriend’s younger siblings wear stuff like this. Drives me crazy to see the poor kids wearing the stuff. I just keep in mind that it took going to college for the boyfriend to really break free, so there’s still hope for his brothers and sisters.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    As much as I love tacky Jesus crap (and I really do love tacky Jesus crap), I won’t let myself buy it anymore beause I don’t want to support those who actually believe this garbage. Now, if I can find it at a garage sale or something, all bets are off.

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/pschult/ Pete Schult

    Although copyright and trademark are both intellectual property, they are governed by different laws. Parody is a defense against infringement for both, but as Harvard Law’s Overview of Trademark Law points out, “in general, however, the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the extent that parodies are less commercial, and less sympathetic to the extent that parodies involve commercial use of the mark.”

    Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Jim, copyrights can’t be lost by failure to enforce. Trademarks can be. But that’s generally only if they become genericized. So for example, Xerox has tried for years people using the term “Xerox” as a verb meaning to copy. Similar issues apply to “Q-tips” and the like.

    As to whether commercial use would remove parody. That’s not the case. Commercial use makes courts less likely to see it as legitimate fair use but it still can be. Fair use is really complicated.

    I suspect that the vast majority of this content would be acceptable. The “Amazing Grace” hat pictured is clearly ok in that it contains a critique of the original product.

  • Alan E.

    Why did they use the American Idol layout for that instead of “The Amazing Race”? Seems like it would fit a whole lot better.

  • Valdyr

    Oh, man, I’ve seen people wearing these on campus. Off the top of my head I can recall a “CHRIST” shirt (the Crest toothpaste logo), and someone else with a shirt displaying the Mountain Dew logo, only it had “Jesus” before the brand name, “for your sins” at the end and “meant to die” in between as the soda logo. I don’t really think “meant to die” rhymes with “Mountain Dew”, or comes off as anything but really awkward and lame, but maybe I’m just biased.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Hi, Hemant Mehta! (Should I call you Mr. Mehta? I’m a college student, so I always feel like I should call teachers Mr./Ms./Dr. Whoever.) This is my first time commenting. I’ve been visiting your site for a while, and I really enjoy what you write.

    This is an interesting story. Of course, there are plenty of people who make illegal copies of things that are copyrighted or trademarked — not just religious people. It does seem rather strange coming from religious people, since many claim that their faith is so profound, meaningful, etc.

    From the article, “Children are bombarded by advertising from a young age, he [Baxter Chism, a United Methodist pastor in Dadeville, Ala.] said, and many adults can quote from commercials far easier than from the Bible.”

    I would think that this is something Christians would want to change, by getting people to read the Bible, instead of using it to sell products for profit. Maybe they’ve figured out that, if people actually read the Bible, they will be convinced to leave Christianity after seeing all the horrible portions. It’s probably easier to “sell” Christianity (or any religion) if they use well-known and popular slogans, advertising, etc. instead of the actual contents of their holy book.

    Coincidently, I was looking around the CafePress website the other day. When you type in “Christianity”, there are lots and lots of results. Even the first page has some examples of what is described in this article.

    Thanks for posting!

  • liz

    yea…i almost bought a ‘get out of hell free’ shirt because i found it funny. what stopped me was when i realized it isnt really a parody to christians. at least not in the same way it is to me.

    i would think it was funny wearing it, but someone else might just think i’m a jesus freak

  • rl

    I used to buy these at youth camp. Just do it. Live for Jesus. Then a logo that’s not quite a Nike swoosh.

    Christians have always excelled at knock-offs. They’ll assimilate your traditions, supernatural beliefs, foods (google “guinea pig last supper”), and especially music (Christ-pop, *shiver*).

    Anything to make you feel more at home before they tell you the really weird parts.

  • Vas

    Many such goods are illegal, trademark attorneys say,…

    Sure I bet attorneys would say that, lets take it to court and find out, oh and we will send you a bill or if we win we’ll send them a bill. The most important thing is for the attorney to send a bill.
    Really this is fair use. I think copyright laws are broken, and broken badly, many other artists feel the same way and this is why the creative commons license model is now a growing movement. Down with corporate control of cultural artifacts, if you want to operate in the public domain, admit that it is the public domain. The entire industry that operates under the protection of copyright law is on the edge of a cliff and will soon fall. Copyright laws were designed to protect the artist but have been seized by corporate culture peddlers and their lobbyists. We need a new model but for now we will have to make due with fair use. (I have spent years looking at and debating copyright law and ethics as it applies to art and am fully prepared to go off on a loooong rant on the subject, fortunately for all of you I am rather busy just now so you are spared).
    Besides this is a trademark issue as others have rightfully pointed out. Art often reflects culture, it always has, in fact you could argue that that is among it’s prime functions, and this applies to bad art as well as great art. A person does not have to pass a test or review to produce art and comment on the society around them. I don’t care for the message every time, particularly this message, but that is beside the point.
    Oh crap I almost went into a full blown art/copyright rant, gotta stop or my day will be lost.
    Cheers

  • Alan E.

    Vas, I would love to read your rant about fair use. My internal “interest ears” perked up with the whole Obama image copyright controversy. I would imagine that this is very similar to Jesus Junk too. Take care of what you need to do, but please fill me in when you have time. I am a part of a product development team (nonreligious), and any extra insight would be great! Just please provide some references with your “rant” so I can back my own comments up at work.

  • Steve

    As a Christian, I have always thought that this type of merchandise was annoying. Can we not think of anything original that would communicate the same message. It is my opinion that this represents the dumbing-down of Christianity. Wouldn’t it make more sense to communicate the dignity of a faith as opposed to selling it as pop culture. Unfortunately this type of “junk” tends to reinforce the opinion of many atheists that Christians are brainless.

    Steve

  • Vas

    @Alan E,
    Really I’m out until at least Monday, in the mean time research creative commons, Don Joyce,culture jamming , Joi Ito, and anything else that strikes your fancy on fair use, there is a ton of stuff out there on the subject. Sorry I can’t be of more help right now.

  • Fett101

    @rl

    “Christians have always excelled at knock-offs.”

    The funny thing is they always seem to be one step behind the curve. That ‘Christian Side Hug’ rap video for example. Gangsta rap has been around years and I just now have seen a Christian rip-off of the genre. It just always seems that when I hear that some new genre has been absorbed and mangled by a Christian music group that it’s 5-10 years after the genre has become mainstream and overplayed.

    Maybe it’s because I’m not into the Catholic culture so it simply reaches the mainstream consciousness later but I’d like to think there’s a team of producers somewhere that have to meticulously research how a genre functions, like reverse engineering.

  • BrettH

    Just a quick note before I run off to get ready for Christmas with my family (Christians always complain that Christmas is becoming more secular, and I love celebrating winter, presents and family!) Parody can be done for profit, it’s just harder when the person you’re parodying has more money than you (because then they have better lawyers). “Space Balls” and “Scary Movie” are good examples.

  • Fett101

    Yeah so long as it is criticizing, satirizing, or commenting on the item being parodied. Space Balls did all that to the Star Wars movies themselves and science fiction in general.

    An argument could be made that these products do the same, but it seems flimsy IMHO (as a professional armchair lawyer), because it does not really comment on the properties being parodied.

  • ryan

    I love that christians are doing this now! Whenever I see these takeoffs on trade names, I think back to when I first saw stuff like this in the late 90s. Then, instead of God, it was all Gay. You’d go into one of those stores that sold all manner of pride materials, and in the back they’d have tons of these shirts. The most common was a “GAP”-logo shirt that said “GAY.” Once I found two laundry-related shirts: “(Gay and Lesbian) PRIDE” (for TIDE) and “All-Temperature QUEER,” which I thought was pretty awesome.

    So yeah, this isn’t new, and I really don’t think harms anything. I’m an IP (patent) lawyer myself, and I don’t see this harming any company’s IP.

  • Zoe

    Whether or not it is legal is not even that important IMO. The thing is that corporations are normally so quick to ‘defend’ their copyrights and trademarks (Apple comes to mind), but for Jesus they’ll allow it. Pfffft.

  • http://selfra.blogspot.com dantresomi

    why i find jesus junk corny, i see other organizations, web sites, musicians and such do this kind of stuff all the time…

  • http://www.myspace.com/youreundoingmybeltwronghun Tim D.

    We have one of these shops at our local mall. Every time I walk by, I think, “Thank God for Christian plagiarists, huh?”

    It’s less “ghaaaa”-inducing when they sell them, though, than it is when I see someone actually *wearing* one. There’s this girl on night shift at my job (who I sometimes see when I stay really late after hours) who wears those stupid-ass “jesus died for Myspace in heaven” shirts that use the Myspace logo. It’s not clever, it’s not witty, and it’s definitely not original. I don’t understand the point these people are trying to make by wearing them. Unless it’s to be condescending and snarky; honestly, I’d rather believe that was the case. At least being snarky makes sense. I mean, seriously, who’s ever converted to Christianity because of a catchy t-shirt slogan?

    P.S. Am I the only person who thinks this whole “pop culture dilution of Christianity” is a really, really *bad* thing for Christianity? I mean, look what happens to music and movies and books when they get diluted for the lowest-common-denominator crowd. How can doing the same thing to a religion be any better?

  • http://neosnowqueen.wordpress.com/ neosnowqueen

    I’m usually amused by those riffs on pop culture. It’s cheesy, but I like cheese.

    I’m not going to comment on parody and fair use – everyone else seems to have that under control

  • Bryan Elliott

    Hm.

    I think it would be a good idea for atheists to make and sell this kitchy shit and send excess profits to a useful secular charity.

    I mean, those making this stuff are already athiests, I must suppose; I can’t see a conscious christian resolving sale of religious product with Jesus kicking over the money changers in the Temple.

    Though, admittedly, a LOT of Christians behave like they’re unconscious.

  • http://youtube.com/user/infidelavenger InfidelAvenger

    Parodies are legal, true, but in this case, but consider also the fact that these products are being sold as competing products in the marketplace.

  • http://jessicasideways.com/ Jessica Sideways

    If they ever ripped off one of MY copyrights, I would take much delight in suing them.

  • 3D

    Those things are funny when they’re about pot or something. I’m not going to turn on a dime and come out against them in principle when the message is something I don’t agree with.

    Plus anything that fucks with corporations and their marketing is OK with me, even if it is spawned from Jesus nuts.

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  • http://www.Dead-Logic.com Bud

    There is a huge demand for Jesus Junk like this. A lot of Christians go crazy for these shirts.

    Maybe this is just a shameless plug for my blog, but I wrote about Jesus Junk recently as well. I talk about my experience as a Christian who tried to sell T-shirts to other Christians: Coo Coo for Christ

    In time I decided it was best to not try to sell T-shirts to Christians. I also decided it was best to not be a Christian.

  • JD

    Personally, while this is cheesy, I don’t think there is a long term benefit in prosecuting it, legal or not. My own ideal vision is that parodies be protected, be it copyright or trademark. The business about having to ruthlessly enforce trademarks or losing it is undesirable. I don’t believe for a second that a parody alteration of a trademark, done for profit or not, really damages the value of the original trademark. One example of my thinking, the “Jesus junk” Spirit T-shirt doesn’t compete against Sprite because it’s not a drink of any kind.

    Think SNL and Daily Show here, they make shows for profit but I recall they routinely alter trademarks and slogans to make their point.

  • James Casey

    As a Christian I agree that all the “Jesus Junk”  is ridiculous. It’s also tacky and immature. But let’s not throw stones, as a Google search for “atheist t-shirts” will turn up a fair amount of examples that prove the “other side” can be just as derivative. Jesus as a zombie (…died for our sins, came back for our brains”…), the multi-religion logo for “Co-Exist” mutated into the word “fiction”, the Abercrombie and Fitch logo altered to read “Atheist & Freethinker”…or just spend some time at Atheists Online ( http://www.atheists-online.com/index.asp ) to see just how much the atheist shit merchants have in common with the Christians. Granted, the Christians have a lot more corny slogans. But a vast majority of the “atheist ‘products’” that I saw were calculated to be very offensive and even hurtful to those who actually do believe in God and adhere to a religion. A lot of hate to wear on the front of a t-shirt, and I know that’s not what atheism is supposed to be about, but then again, Christianity can’t be condensed into a slogan on a XXL Hanes Beefy-T. Thank you for the opportunity to respond, even though the post is relatively ancient. 

  • yea sayer

    The criticism is off base. When Tina Fey does a parody of Sarah Palin on SNL nobody suspects her of running for vice president. Parodies are not “knock offs” and not copyright infringements and are protected speech I believe. A knock-off is when someone copies a Rolex and tries to pass it off as a rolex. A parody is obviously NOT trying to do that but to repurpose pop culture icons. Good taste is anybody’s guess. Culture jamming is an important aspect of post-modern art.

    • Matthew Hackley

      I can see your point here, but Sarah Palin is not a registered trademark.


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