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A real-life tax preparation company has lost its defamation and trademark lawsuit against “Better Call Saul” over the TV show’s alleged use of a fictional tax company that allegedly ripped off the real company’s look.
Liberty Tax Service, a Virginia-based company with more than 2,500 locations across the U.S. and Canada, sued the show and AMC Networks in 2022 over an episode featuring a tax preparation firm called Sweet Liberty Tax Service. In “Better Call Saul,” which is set in New Mexico, Sweet Liberty Tax Service is run by a character, Craig Kettleman, who was recently released from prison after serving time for embezzlement.
According to the complaint, Sweet Liberty Tax Service closely resembled Liberty Tax: for example, according to Liberty Tax, the exterior of Sweet Liberty featured American flag-style embellishments of red and white strips and white stars on a blue background, similar to the real-life business, as well as an inflatable Statue of Liberty and various depictions of Lady Liberty.
Liberty Tax accused AMC of defamation and trademark violation, alleging that “Better Call Saul” — a “Breaking Bad” spinoff that tells the story of fictional con artist-turned-lawyer Saul Goodman — deliberately ripped off the Virginia company’s trademarks and overall look and damaged its reputation.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe dismissed the lawsuit.
Gardephe, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed with AMC’s argument that the creation and use of Sweet Liberty Tax Service in the TV show was protected by the First Amendment because it was artistically relevant to the show’s plot, as it was a company run by a husband-and-wife team. The husband’s character had appeared in the first season of the show and returned in its sixth season, having recently been released from prison after serving time for embezzlement.
“[T]he reference to ‘Sweet Liberty’ is clearly ironic and closely related to Craig Kettleman’s role in the series […] and the Kettlemans’ use of Plaintiff’s trade dress is a gaudy and shabby appropriation of patriotic imagery that highlights their hypocrisy and the tawdry nature of their crimes,” the ruling says.
As to whether the existence of Sweet Liberty Tax Service in the “Better Call Saul” universe “misled consumers to believe that Liberty [Tax] authorized or endorsed the Episode,” as the complaint alleged, Gardephe found that there were no facts to support an “intent to deceive” and “bad faith” on AMC’s part.
“Indeed, the Amended Complaint does not plead any facts suggesting that Defendants sought to attract viewers by associating ‘Better Call Saul’ — a popular television show in its sixth season — with a tax preparation business,” the ruling says. “Put differently, there are no factual allegations suggesting that Defendants intended to capitalize on Plaintiff’s marks and trade dress.”
Because Gardephe dismissed Liberty Tax’s federal trademark claims, he determined that he didn’t have jurisdiction over the state defamation claim.
Read Gardephe’s ruling, which dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, below.
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