Like many people, I spent part of my COVID-19 isolation binging Netflix’s new mini-series Tiger King. Tiger King follows Joe Exotic, a private zoo owner and big cat collector. Of particular interest to the Tampa Bay area, the Netflix series focuses on Joe Exotic’s feud with Carole Baskin, owner of the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. Without spoiling the series, one of the most interesting parts of the series to an IP attorney was the role of IP infringement in bringing down the Tiger King. Specifically, trademark and copyright infringement caused Joe Exotic’s downfall.

As he makes clear throughout the documentary, Joe Exotic detests Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Joe Exotic is a tiger breeder and uses tigers for profit. Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue is an animal sanctuary, rescuing big cats from people like Joe Exotic. Since Joe Exotic was on Carole Baskin’s radar as an animal abuser, Baskin tracked Exotic’s movement and tried to shut down his operation.

Big Cat Rescue IP Infringement Brought Down Tiger King

In 2011, Joe Exotic decided to try to poach Big Cat Rescue’s business model. Exotic renamed his entertainment show BIG CAT RESCUE ENTERTAINMENT. In addition, Exotic displayed images on his website that were substantially similar to images on the Big Cat Rescue website. Carole Baskin wanted to end Joe Exotic’s private zoo. Exotic’s trademark and copyright infringement opened the door to bring the Tiger King down.

Big Cat Rescue sued Joe Exotic and his company in the Middle District of Florida for trademark and copyright infringement. The judge awarded a final judgment against Exotic for $25,000 for copyright infringement. However, the parties reached a much larger settlement for $1 million in damages on the trademark infringement allegations. The settlement forced Exotic to seek funding from shadier characters than himself. Ultimately, the trademark and copyright infringement issues brought down the Tiger King.

It may be tempting to compete with a third-party by using similar names or artwork. However, the damages from infringement lawsuits often mitigate any potential competitive gains. It is always better to compete with higher quality products than with IP infringement.