A day after its opening, Drink Company’s Rick and Morty-themed bar has been forced to close. The bar owners say Turner Broadcasting and Cartoon Network sent them a cease-and-desist, then asked them to pay a $100,000 licensing fee and cut down the length of the pop-up by a month if they wanted to move forward. Instead, Drink Company says it’s been forced lay off employees and take a financial hit.
“We are so sorry to all the fans but we also have learned a valuable lesson: when it comes to free speech and fair use, Turner Broadcasting/Cartoon Network believes that should only be a joke on the show,” the bar owners wrote in a statement posted online Friday night.
The Wubba Lubba Dubba PUB was initially supposed to open Aug. 9 and run through Oct. 6. However, after a media preview last week, the team announced they were delaying the public opening until the 16th. “We’re still fine tuning a few things,” the bar’s publicist explained. It turns out, however, the owners were negotiating with Turner Broadcasting during that time.
“Adult Swim was not approached in advance of Drink Company building out and announcing their Rick and Morty themed bar,” Adult Swim, which is part of Cartoon Network, says in a statement. “That bothered us, not only because it wasn’t polite and aimed at profiting off of Rick and Morty fans, but because we couldn’t be sure that the experience was going to be up to our standards for those fans, whom we never want to disappoint. Also, it’s illegal, which we’re pretty sure still counts for something.”
Drink Company CEO Angie Fetherston previously told Washingtonian that the bar—which has also taken on Super Mario Bros and Game of Thrones themes—often has behind-the-scenes agreements when intellectual property issues are at play. “We can’t really talk about them on the record,” she said. “I’ll give you an example: With HBO, they said if you follow certain rules, we’ll look the other way. It’s unofficial kind of stuff.”
Another Rick and Morty-themed pop-up at an arcade bar in Chicago appeared to have such an arrangement. According to the Chicago Tribune, Turner Broadcasting contacted the bar about its use of intellectual property but gave permission to continue the pop-up in an “unofficial capacity.”
In this case, Drink Company President Derek Brown says “there were communications of sorts, and I think right now it’s not really worth going into detail about those.” What matters is that shortly after publicly announcing the pop-up, Drink Company received a cheekily written cease-and-desist letter from Turner Broadcasting attorney Brian Winterfeldt of Winterfeldt IP Group. Here it is, in part:
“Lawyer Morty was preoccupied with his pog collection, so Turner Broadcasting System and The Cartoon Network (“Turner”) asked me to reach out to you about your Rick and Morty-themed drinking destination,” the cease-and-desist letter begins.
“We discovered the Wubba Lubba Dub Pub on interdimensional cable and from recent press attention, where folks seem genuinely confused about your association with Turner and their sponsorship of your activities. Unfortunately, while we love your enthusiasm for the show, none of this activity was cleared by the Council of Ricks. In fact, we’ve checked all versions of the legal code across the multiverse and what you’re doing isn’t legit in any of them. Here in particular, you’re in danger of violating Turner’s rights on a number of levels, including copyright infringement, trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition.”
Despite the cutesy tone of the letter, “it was in essence legal intimidation,” Brown says.
The bar team tried to do what they could to make things work. “We’re fans creating fan art. We did something we thought was really special and that we thought they would appreciate in the long run,” Brown says. Their first response wasn’t to lawyer up but to invite Turner representatives to the bar to see the tribute for themselves. “We really thought in a way that would appeal to them, and it didn’t.”
Drink Company did eventually hire a lawyer who specializes in trademarks and copyrights, John Mason, to hopefully work something out. “[My clients] just don’t feel that consumers are going to be confused or that it’s somehow going to damage Turner Broadcasting or Cartoon Network or the producers of the show by them having a short-term, temporary, fan-centric, fan-tribute pop-up,” says Mason, who’s also an adjunct law professor at UDC.
Brown says they were willing to go along with a lot of Turner’s requests, including putting up disclaimers distinguishing between the parties and agreeing to an indemnification provision to prevent the media company from being liable if someone was injured in the space. Turner also wanted to make sure Drink Company would not target its other properties in the future.
Attorney Mason says initial discussions with the Turner lawyers were amicable. In fact, he says they came to an initial agreement on Aug. 8 (the day before the official opening), which involved delaying the debut by a week but no mention of licensing fees. Mason says he wrote up an email with the terms of the settlement, and other side confirmed them over the phone.
But later that night, as Mason was making his kids dinner, a Turner lawyer called him to say “it was all a big misunderstanding, there is no settlement.” Mason says the lawyer played off the prior terms as “spitballing concepts that they could take to their client.”
A few days later, on Monday, Aug. 13, Turner sent Drink Company a letter demanding a $100,000 licensing fee. Drink Company responded with a much smaller amount—not to concede they were wrong, but as an act of good faith. A potential settlement still seemed to be in limbo when the bar opened on Thursday, Aug. 16. But the next day, Turner brought in a big national law firm, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, to shut the bar down.
“I got on the phone with them, and they confirmed there’s absolutely no room for settlement. You either shut down, or we’re filing,” Mason says.
“I’m sure people will say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to profit off their work,’” Brown says. “But to be honest with you, in some ways the profit is not what’s important to us.” Scrambling to negotiate a last minute deal, Brown says they were prepared to donate 100-percent of their profits to charity in order for fans to still see the bar and to keep staff employed.
Initially, Drink Company had planned to auction off some of its art and decor for charity as well. Now, that’s no longer an option, Brown says. “They literally want the same people who created it to destroy it. It’s incredibly sad.”
The whole fiasco doesn’t mean Drink Company will stick to more generic themes for pop-ups going forward. “Hell no, where’s the fun in that?” Brown says. “In the long run, we want to go out there and make great art and have fun concepts, and we’re going to try to do it in a respectful way, in a loving way. Obviously, as you can imagine there will be some more tiptoeing, but it’s not going to be to the detriment of creating something really excellent.”
As for exactly what’s next? Brown’s not sure yet. “Today we’re sleeping in because it’s just kind of a shock to the system.”
Here’s Drink Company’s full statement:
Wubba Lubba Dub PUB was designed by fans for fans, though we think everyone would have enjoyed it. It was a labor of love and included hand sewn Meeseeks from our CEO Angie’s mother; graffiti work by Andrew Funk, an incredible artist whom we discovered tagging our bathroom one night; a 25-foot Ruben cut out by our Special Projects Director, hockey-referee-turned-craftsman Matt Fox; and deep references to a show that has made us all laugh out loud and confront the deeper meaning behind the gags. In a word, we are fans geeking out.
Turner Broadcasting/Cartoon Network wasn’t willing to let us do that and demanded we shut down. We then reached an agreement, and thus delayed for a week, but they changed their minds, threatened us with exorbitant fees and then took everything off the table today and refused to talk any further. The whole time we were operating in good faith and willing to make concessions to bring this wonderful work of fan art to life.
Now we have to lay off our beloved employees and take a massive financial hit, all because Turner Broadcasting/Cartoon Network are unwilling to figure out a way to let a great fan tribute happen. We are so sorry to all the fans but we also have learned a valuable lesson: when it comes to free speech and fair use, Turner Broadcasting/Cartoon Network believes that should only be a joke on the show.
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This story has been updated as additional information has become available.