Last week, Brian Cronin wrote an article for CBR entitled ‘There’s Not Much Marvel Can Do About Cops Using Punisher’s Logo.’ In it, he presented a thorough explanation why police officers could not (and should not) be individually targeted for trademark enforcement while wearing the Punisher symbol on their uniforms, vehicles, and equipment.
Cronin also explained why law enforcement’s use of the Punisher logo is all types of awful, but that won’t be our focus here. If you somehow don’t understand why police wearing the symbol of a homicidal vigilante is a bad thing, I’ll let Frank Castle himself explain, which he did to two adoring officers in 2019’s The Punisher #13 by Matthew Rosenberg and Szymon Kudranski.
But back to the legal issue — Cronin correctly points out that since officers are not attempting to sell anything while they’re sporting the Punisher logo, its use would not be legally actionable. As distasteful as it is for a law enforcement officer to display the symbol of a murderous vigilante while on duty, they also have a First Amendment right to do so. Disney may have a case if an entire police department adopted the Punisher logo as their official symbol, but that’s very unlikely to happen again after a Kentucky PD tried it back in 2017 and faced immediate/overwhelming public backlash.
As far as trademark infringement is concerned, that would be an issue between Disney and the company who sold the items, not the individuals who purchased them. There are instances where Disney would potentially have a case against individuals wearing items featuring their intellectual property, but only in situations where said individuals are acting in a commercial capacity.
Take “Mr. Law & Order” Sean Hannity, who is on Fox News most weeknights with a bootleg Punisher pin prominently displayed on his lapel. Since he’s wearing the unlicensed pin while being featured on a for-profit television platform that’s not officially licensed/sanctioned by Disney (as far as we know) — and it’s a fashion statement rather than something Mr. Hannity is actively “reporting” on — Disney could potentially take legal action. Unfortunately, this would likely result in some major PR blowback while simultaneously enraging
Cthulhu in his human form Isaac Perlmutter, so it likely won’t happen.
So what can anyone do, then? Well, in addition to Marvel’s tepid response to the issue, they could also crack down unlicensed vendors selling Punisher items to the police.
To be fair, Cronin also mentioned this, which got me wondering if it was a viable solution.
The first step would be to see if any of these police-themed Punisher items were being manufactured and sold legally. I reached out to nine different apparel companies that produce items featuring the Punisher emblem adorned with police, military, and patriotic symbols/coloring. None of them appeared to have any trademark agreement with Disney/Marvel, so I asked each one if such an agreement existed — and if it did not, if they would be able to inform me who originally manufactured the items for them.
The response I got from these businesses, which all appear fervently dedicated to glorifying the purveyors of law and order, were surprising to the say the least.
This company sells a huge variety of pins, only one of which features a bootleg Punisher police logo. I almost didn’t feel right going after them, but that definitely changed after interacting with the the company over the last week.
I called PinMart’s customer service line on Friday, June 5 to ask about Item #S2267, which the site had listed as Thin Blue Line Punisher Pin. If you hover your cursor over the aforementioned the URL, you’ll notice that it specifically identifies the item as “thin-blue-link-punisher-pin” …which is odd, because since my phone call on Friday June 5, the item’s name has been changed to simply “Thin Blue Line Skull Pin”.
Thankfully, you can still find this little beauty by typing Punisher in the website’s search bar. And before anyone says “it’s just a skull,” it’s most definitely not. As Brian Cronin pointed out in his piece for CBR:
One area where there is confusion is over whether Marvel can even enforce a trademark on the Punisher’s logo, since it is seemingly “just” a skull and, therefore, would be too generic to trademark. That is not the case, though, as the Punisher’s logo (designed by Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr.) is clearly a distinctly stylized skull, and its distinctive design certainly can be trademarked.
As far as my discussion with PinMart, the customer service rep I spoke to claimed she didn’t know if the company had a licensing agreement with Disney to sell items featuring the Punisher logo (which can also be purchased from third party sellers, including Walmart). She took down my email address and said someone from their marketing department would be in touch with me about the issue. Just in case, I also sent an email to their support and press inquiry contacts so they wouldn’t have any issues trying to reach me.
Unfortunately, I have yet to hear back from anyone. On the plus side, they’ve got one heck of a fast IT department to get that item’s name changed so quickly to something that sounds a bit more legal.
Fun side note: Other than this item, PinMart is extremely careful about violating other company’s trademarks. Even their school mascot pins are generic enough not to get them in trouble (unless you’re a Clemson fan, maybe). This makes it all the more perplexing that you can find the Thin Blue Line Punisher/Skull pin by searching for ‘Marvel’ on their website.
In my final follow up phone call on Tuesday, June 9, I was told that my question had been received and passed along to the company’s management. The person I spoke with also said they were pretty sure PinMart did not have a trademark license to use the Punisher skull logo, but they weren’t sure and did not have access to that information.
Dead end acknowledged.
Thin Blue Line USA
This company has a huge online presence, including a verified Facebook page/shop. They also sell a substantial amount of apparel featuring the Punisher logo. While most of it is labeled as generic skull apparel, some items are explicitly labeled as being the Punisher symbol. Also, all of the following items could be found by searching for “Punisher” on the site.
I called Thin Blue Line’s customer service line on Friday, June 5 to ask if they had a trademark agreement with Disney/Marvel to sell items bearing the Punisher logo. The response I got evolved significantly within the span of two minutes.
- First I was told that yes, they did have an agreement with Disney/Marvel. I expressed a degree of skepticism since there was nothing on the Punisher logo items indicating a trademark belonging to Disney/Marvel.
- The woman on the other end of the line recanted her initial statement and claimed that she actually wasn’t certain they had a licensing agreement with Disney/Marvel, but was pretty sure they did.
- When I asked what made her think a licensing agreement existed, she stated that they “hadn’t had any issues” selling the products before aside from someone who claimed to be the Punisher’s creator saying that he did not approve of it.
I’ve reached out to Gerry Conway for a comment on that last part (and to see if it was true), but haven’t heard back. This is likely due to him having embarked on his own personal crusade to reclaim the Punisher symbol from law enforcement (which is well worth your time to check out and support).
Since then, I’ve attempted to contact Thin Blue Line USA via their email addresses for customer service and press inquiries, but have not received a response. I did, however, receive a response to my Facebook message that was more than a bit perplexing.
Putting aside the ironic hilarity of this company’s product base consisting of American flag-based apparel, that still didn’t answer my question about whether or not they’re licensed to sell merchandise adorned with the Punisher logo.
Unfortunately, my follow up message has thus far been ignored.
Meanwhile, the team behind Thin Blue Line USA was hard at work removing and changing Punisher-themed item listings on their website. On Monday, June 8, a search for “Punisher” on their website gave the item listings pictured above. By Tuesday, June 9, the same search produced only this:
A search on the site for “skull,” however, produces this:
As you’ll notice, many of the items from before are completely missing now (like the Thin Blue Line Punisher pin). Some were never listed in the Punisher search query the first time. Others remain completely unchanged. The Punisher Thin Blue Line patch is still there along with its “Punisher” listing, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s also been changed by the time this article is posted.
They also had a page boldly listed as their Punisher Collection with 24 item listings (which you can see in the first photo) that has since been reduced to four.
Good to see that while Thin Blue Lives USA drapes themselves in the Stars & Stripes, they are hard at work playing shell games in an attempt to continue selling unlicensed products that were made overseas.
Lots of Punisher patches for sale, all labeled as such.
This company was kind enough to actually respond via Facebook messenger, where they explained that they bought all their items wholesale from ThinBlueLine.com. Since that link doesn’t go anywhere, I think we can safely assume they meant ThinBlueLineUSA.com.
A small selection of Punisher-themed (and labeled) apparel, including the Trump Skull logo that used to be available in pin form at trumpskullpin.com. Maybe Disney forced them to stop selling the item after Jude Terror wrote an article about it for Bleeding Cool.
Meanwhile, Patriot Wear continues to sell a Trump Skull hat and Trump Skull t-shirt along with seven other items, which they boldly advertise as “Guaranteed to Melt Snowflakes.”
Not included alongside this super manly guarantee is a trademark notice for using the Punisher logo.
I attempted to contact Patriot Wear via their customer service email, but did not receive a response. When I called their customer service line, the person I spoke with recognized my question and said that they had received my email. He then directed me to the same email address if I wanted an answer to my question.
In other words, I was getting the run around…or perhaps Patriot Wear’s licensing department was hiding in their safe space from Disney’s legal team.
Precision Metal Art USA
I’ve got to admit, I had a bit of a soft spot for these guys at first. While they’re almost certainly using the Punisher logo without a license, I do appreciate the artistic skill it would take to create these giant (and beautiful) metallic emblems.
Of course, then you read where the owner/creator says the Punisher logo “is not just a sign of veteran heroism, [but] also a symbol for justice” and it makes you want to slam your head into a desk.
Like many of the companies on this list, Precision Metal Arts did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether or not they had a licensing agreement with Disney/Marvel.
All types of Punisher-theme goodies here and all proudly labeled as such.
As with most of the companies I contacted, A Brotherhood was not feeling very fraternal toward me or my written inquiries and did not respond. I was hopeful after receiving an automated response on Facebook messenger, but was sadly left on read.
I did, however, manage to reach someone by phone on Tuesday, June 9.
When I asked the woman on the other end of the line if A Brotherhood had a license from Disney to use the Punisher logo, she stated that they didn’t need one because Punisher wasn’t a Disney character. When I explained that Marvel is owned by Disney, she clarified her position by saying that A Brotherhood did not need a trademark license because it was not the actual Marvel character symbol, but one they had designed themselves.
As far as using the name “Punisher” in their website’s listings and search functions, she explained that it was necessary to help customers find the product.
It was at this point that the person I was speaking with asked who I was and why I was calling. I replied that I was Nick Nafpliotis from AIPT, which didn’t elicit much of a response.
I then explained that I was working on a story about commercial use of the Punisher symbol outside of officially licensed products by Disney/Marvel. That’s when things got a bit testy. To her credit, though, she did thank me for calling before we hung up.
Liberty Tee Shop
Gotta say, I did not have a “Trump Wearing a Punisher Shirt on a Cloth Grocery Bag” as part of my Unlicensed Punisher Bingo Card, yet here we are. Liberty Tee has plenty of other bootleg Punisher items for sale, but this one is by far the strangest.
The page for the Blue Line Stars Stripes Patriotic 2K Nomad Shoes also features a graphic loudly declaring “TRUMP 2020: NO MORE BULLSH*T.” Considering the lack of trademark on these and every other Punisher-themed item sold by them, I’m guessing that their definition of “bullsh*t” does not include the illegal sale of unlicensed products.
I attempted to contact Liberty Tee multiple times via email, but did not receive a response.
Tactical Pro Supply
Not a very large selection of Punisher gear compared to the other sites, but none of it appears to be licensed, either.
Once again, no response to multiple inquiries.
While not focused exclusively on the sale of police/military themed items, Dagbe still has a decent selection of blue line and camouflaged hoodies adorned with the Punisher logo, including one that you can customize with your own text.
Once again, no response to multiple inquiries.
So, What CAN Be Done?
Well, for starters, Disney can put its money where its mouth is and stop these companies from illegally selling items that feature their intellectual property. Disney’s legal department has gone after plenty of other groups/individuals for doing so, including:
- A daycare with a mural featuring Disney characters.
- An elementary school that played the 2019 Lion King movie during a fundraiser.
- The Spider-Man-themed grave marker of a 4-year old boy who died of leukodystrophy, whose family was forced to remove it from the cemetery.
If these all warranted a releasing of the legal hounds, then surely the unlicensed use of the Punisher logo by vendors that target sales toward law enforcement merits some type of response — especially when you consider Disney/Marvel’s public statement on the matter.
To be honest, though, this action alone wouldn’t come close to solving anything. Even if Disney forced every one of those companies to stop selling Punisher-themed merchandise, there are still far too many customizers and Etsy sellers for even their expansive legal department to handle.
Then of course there’s all the misguided police officers who already adorn themselves in Punisher gear, much of which may have been purchased through officially licensed vendors who can (and will) continue to sell Punisher-themed products. That’s probably why Brian Cronin wrapped up his article on CBR by suggesting that Marvel stop licensing Punisher items completely. Echoing that sentiment in the strongest manner possible, Hector Valverde published an article on CBR yesterday entitled ‘Marvel Should Stop Selling Punisher Merchandise.’
While I see why that might look like the next logical step in prohibiting the symbol’s appropriation by law enforcement, I think might have an even better idea: Disney/Marvel shuts down the bootleggers, keeps selling their own officially licensed Punisher-themed items (directly and/or through approved retailers), and donates 100% of all direct market and retail sale proceeds to any of the following groups:
- Black Lives Matter
- Know Your Rights Camp
- NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
- The National Police Accountability Project
In addition to raising funds for organizations at the forefront of the fight to protect our black communities, it would also make sporting the Punisher logo a lot less “sexy” among the type of police officers who would normally wear it.
And on a much more cynical note, Disney could claim a huge PR win along with a nice big tax write off.
Whatever their ultimate motivations, however, the ball is in Disney and Marvel’s court now. You want us to believe you when you said this?
Then here’s your chance to show some believable solidarity. Even the most ardent law enforcement supporter shouldn’t have any trouble understanding why a police officer sporting the Punisher logo is problematic, especially at a crucial time like we’re living in right now.
We already did the leg work for you. If a small comic book website like ours can make these companies start to move or take down their bootleg inventory, then you definitely have the power to do so much more. No one’s asking you take down Hydra or save New York from the Sinister Six. We just want you to do the right thing.
Read our follow up piece on this story (which includes a wardrobe change for Mr. Hannity) here.