Adult Swim, which shows “Rick and Morty” on Cartoon Network, issued the following statement on Saturday morning: “Adult Swim was not approached in advance of Drink Company building out and announcing their Rick and Morty themed bar. That bothered us, not only because it wasn’t polite and aimed at profiting off 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.”
Derek Brown, the president of Drink Company, which puts on the rotating pop-ups, said his company had been in talks with Turner and Cartoon Network in recent weeks about permission to use the “Rick and Morty” characters. “We believed we had a deal, and they essentially backed out of it.”
John Mason, an intellectual property attorney who represents Drink Company, described negotiations as “cordial,” covering “the usual types of agreements” about disclaimers and indemnification. “We agreed to a variety of things,” including the request for a delay in opening. After an afternoon of discussion, Mason emailed a “settlement in principle” to Turner's attorneys on Aug. 8. The following Monday, Mason said, he received a new counter-offer: “A six-figure licensing fee” to use the characters, which hadn't previously been mentioned.
“Let's be honest: It was intended to shut us down,” Brown said. “It was the kind of deal you give a T-shirt company or someone making skateboards. We're not Disney. This is a fan tribute.”
Turner did not respond to requests for comment beyond Adult Swim's emailed statement. “Their position is that this is a trademark issue, and that people might get confused about what they do and what Drink Company was doing,” Mason said. “Then there's the issue of artwork. The artwork they create for the show is copyrighted. Their real gist is that what they were doing would actually confuse consumers.
“Our position is that this is fair use. This isn't displacing opportunity in the marketplace for Turner, and people weren't going to think, 'Oh, Cartoon Network is starting a pop-up bar.' "
This actually isn't the first time “Rick and Morty,” an adult sci-fi cartoon about a space-traveling mad scientist and his grandson, has inspired a bar: Replay, an arcade bar in Chicago, launched a “Rick and Morty” pop-up in January. Like Wubba Dubba Lub Pub, it was decorated with fan art of the characters, and included a thematic cocktail menu. According to RedEye Chicago, “Replay was contacted by Turner Broadcasting regarding its use of “Rick and Morty” intellectual property, but received permission to continue the pop-up event through Feb. 11 in an unofficial capacity.” (It wound up running until Feb. 25.)
Mason said Drink Company asked why Replay's tribute was permitted, and received the following explanation: It only ran for 2½ weeks, they were told, instead of Wubba Dubba Lub Pub's planned two months, and it was a smaller, less-sophisticated operation.
Drink Company's previous pop-up bars, which have featured elaborate decorations, animated monsters and costumed staff, have been inspired by trademarked property before, such as HBO's “Game of Thrones” and Netflix's “Stranger Things,” but they'd managed to come to agreements with license holders. At the “Game of Thrones” pub, for example, “there were a few stipulations,” Brown said: Guests waited in long lines to have their photos taken on a reproduction of the show's Iron Throne, but the rest of the bar didn't feature any likenesses of “Game of Thrones” actors, or host Sunday night viewing parties.
Mason, the president of the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, thinks the abrupt turn in negotiations with Turner is part of a larger issue: “Companies are getting more and more upset with fan tributes — fan art, fan fiction — and they're trying to enforce their rights in a way that hasn't been done before,” he said. “I think this is about a line being drawn in the sand. They're looking to control fan tributes, to make sure it's authorized.”
As pop-up bars inspired by pop culture have become more popular in recent years, they've shown varying approaches toward potential intellectual property conflicts and how far they're willing to push the use of trademarks.
An immersive “Stranger Things"-inspired pop-up in Chicago called the Upside Down opened last summer without permission from Netflix, and received a cease-and-desist letter when its creators attempted to extend their six-week residency. “You’re obviously creative types, so I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s important to us to have a say in how our fans encounter the worlds we build,” the letter read, ending with “So please don’t make us call your mom.”
The Dark Side Bar, launched in New York, Hollywood and the District in November to celebrate the release of “The Last Jedi,” was careful not to tread too close to Lucasfilm properties. While the employees and quite a few guests wore “Star Wars” costumes, the drinks were called the “Red Force” or the “Imperial” instead of the “Death Star Martini.” And then there was “Enter Wakanda,” an unofficial “Black Panther” celebration with a throne room inspired by the movie, paintings of “Black Panther” characters created by local artists and cocktails named “Vibranium” and “Heart of Wakanda.” It was open for two weekends.
At Drink Company, Brown said he's disappointed with the result. Drink Company will have to lay off staff and probably have to destroy all the art and fixtures made for the bar. But, he added, it won't change how they operate pop-ups going forward. “We only make bars full of things we love. We hope in the future to support the fans, as fans ourselves, find partners who appreciate what we do and create amazing, fun bars. So, same as ever.”