Law

Groucho and the Name

August 29, 2020 Paul Brennan
Law
Groucho and the Name
Chapters
Law
Groucho and the Name
Aug 29, 2020
Paul Brennan

The Warner Brothers legal department tries to take on the Marx Brothers

Show Notes Transcript

The Warner Brothers legal department tries to take on the Marx Brothers

Groucho and the name

In 1946, the Warner Brothers lawyers threatened legal proceedings if the Marx Brothers released their movie under the name "A Night in Casablanca", as it was too similar to Warner’s hit movie title "Casablanca". 

 Groucho Marx replied to the Warner Brothers’ letter stating that he agreed that they had the right to use the name Warner, but that he had been using “Brothers” long before they did. 

There is no monopoly in a title or name, unless it is a trademark, which usually means it is registered. In practice, this means that if you devise a clever title for, say, a training course, anyone else can start using it unless it is registered. 

There is an exception to registration, however, which was the focus of Warner Brothers’ next attempt to gag the Marx Brothers. If by the use of that name you intentionally mislead people, then you might be stopped from using it (this is called “passing off”, i.e. pretending it is from the same source). In practice, this is very difficult to prove.

Warner Brothers asked Groucho to tell them the gist of the plot of his movie. He did not need to do so, but a court could have ordered it, so Groucho sent back a plot which I believe involved Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and a brothel.  

Warner Brothers lawyers persisted, and Groucho put forward the theory that the head of the legal department probably did not even know of the matter. Having worked for and been the head of an in-house legal department, I can confirm that this can often be the case. 

He blamed “…some ferret-faced shyster, …hot out of law school, hungry for success, and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion”.

He assured Warner Brothers that he would fight this “pasty-faced legal adventurer” in the highest court, as no one “was going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes".

The Warner Brothers’ lawyers eventually gave up. 

Let this stand as a warning to all pasty-faced legal adventurers.

Note : Groucho’s letter can be found on line.