Special thanks to EFF legal intern Jack Beck, who was the lead author of this post.

Amid heavy criticism for its ties to weapons manufacturers supplying Israel, South by Southwest—the organizer of an annual conference and music festival in Austin—has been on the defensive. One tool in their arsenal: bogus trademark and copyright claims against local advocacy group Austin for Palestine Coalition.

The Austin for Palestine Coalition has been a major source of momentum behind recent anti-SXSW protests. Their efforts have included organizing rallies outside festival stages and hosting an alternative music festival in solidarity with Palestine. They have also created social media posts explaining the controversy, criticizing SXSW, and calling on readers to email SXSW with demands for action. The group’s posts include graphics that modify SXSW’s arrow logo to add blood-stained fighter jets. Other images incorporate patterns evoking SXSW marketing materials overlaid with imagery like a bomb or a bleeding dove.

Graphic featuring parody of SXSW arrow logo and a bleeding dove in front of a geometric background, with the text "If SXSW wishes to retain its credibility, it must change course by disavowing the normalization of militarization within the tech and entertainment industries."

One of Austin for Palestine's graphics

Days after the posts went up, SXSW sent a cease-and-desist letter to Austin for Palestine, accusing them of trademark and copyright infringement and demanding they take down the posts. Austin for Palestine later received an email from Instagram indicating that SXSW had reported the post for violating their trademark rights.

We responded to SXSW on Austin for Palestine’s behalf, explaining that their claims are completely unsupported by the law and demanding they retract them.

The law is clear on this point. The First Amendment protects your right to make a political statement using trademark parodies, whether or not the trademark owner likes it. That’s why trademark law applies a different standard (the “Rogers test”) to infringement claims involving expressive works. The Rogers test is a crucial defense against takedowns like these, and it clearly applies here. Even without Rogers’ extra protections, SXSW’s trademark claim would be bogus: Trademark law is about preventing consumer confusion, and no reasonable consumer would see Austin for Palestine’s posts and infer they were created or endorsed by SXSW.

SXSW’s copyright claims are just as groundless. Basic symbols like their arrow logo are not copyrightable. Moreover, even if SXSW meant to challenge Austin for Palestine’s mimicking of their promotional material—and it’s questionable whether that is copyrightable as well—the posts are a clear example of non-infringing fair use. In a fair use analysis, courts conduct a four-part analysis, and each of those four factors here either favors Austin for Palestine or is at worst neutral. Most importantly, it’s clear that the critical message conveyed by Austin for Palestine’s use is entirely different from the original purpose of these marketing materials, and the only injury to SXSW is reputational—which is not a cognizable copyright injury.

SXSW has yet to respond to our letter. EFF has defended against bogus copyright and trademark claims in the past, and SXSW’s attempted takedown feels especially egregious considering the nature of Austin for Palestine’s advocacy. Austin for Palestine used SXSW’s iconography to make a political point about the festival itself, and neither trademark nor copyright is a free pass to shut down criticism. As an organization that “dedicates itself to helping creative people achieve their goals,” SXSW should know better.