SXSW Sent Cease-and-Desist Letter to Organization Leading Army Sponsorship Protest

Protesters gather at SXSW March 8 (Photo by Carys Anderson)

The ties of this year’s South by Southwest to weapons manufacturers supplying Israel have disrupted the festival in more ways than one.

Artists continue to drop out of official showcases, while protesters have called for a ceasefire in Gaza while disrupting several official events. Now, Austin for Palestine Coalition, the organization generating this protest momentum, is entangled in a copyright dispute with SXSW that could result in legal action. (Disclosure: SXSW co-founder and part-owner Nick Barbaro also co-founded and owns The Austin Chronicle.)

APC made an Instagram post February 21 urging people to email the Festival to disinvite RTX Corporation (formerly Raytheon), its subsidiary Collins Aerospace, and BAE Systems to the conference and festivals. Those companies manufacture weapons used by Israel on Palestinians – APC says “by supporting these companies, SXSW is complicit in human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

On February 23, SXSW shot back, sending a cease-and-desist letter to APC, stating the activists had used SXSW trademark art without permission in the post. In the email letter, SXSW threatened legal action: “SXSW supports the constitutionally protected right of free speech and, as always, you are permitted to refer to our SXSW Marks in a factual or editorial manner. However, as a trademark and copyright owner, we have an obligation to protect the goodwill and reputation associated with the SXSW Marks and copyright protected art by preventing their unauthorized use… In the event that you will not comply with our request, we reserve our rights to take appropriate steps to protect our marks and copyright.”

APC’s lawyer, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Cara L. Gagliano, responded to SXSW, Thursday, March 7, saying that the trademark claim fails because the graphics are political parody, which is a First Amendment right. “No reasonable consumer would interpret Austin for Palestine’s renditions of the arrow logo – which add fighter jets and details evoking blood splatter – as indicating that SXSW produced, sponsored, or endorsed graphics criticizing its own business practices. Without a likelihood of consumer confusion, there is no infringement.” She goes on to point out that “the graphics are non-commercial expression on issues of significant public interest. … The only conceivable market harm that the graphics could inflict is reputational, which is not a cognizable copyright injury.” APC has not yet received a response from SXSW.

Meanwhile, APC’s Zainab Haider says last week, the APC received two emails from Instagram telling them their account had been suspended and the February 21 post removed, in response to trademark claims reported by SXSW. Confusingly, their post is still up and the account is still active, but their follower count went down to 2,000 from 4,000 on March 5, and then back up the next day. APC is not the only organization posting about Palestine to experience this: A December Human Rights Watch article identified over 1,050 takedowns and other suppression of Instagram and Facebook content posted by Palestinians and their supporters between October and November 2023. That suppression included suspension of accounts, restrictions on engagement with content, as well as “shadow banning,” which HRW defines as a “significant decrease in the visibility of an individual’s posts, stories, or account,” initiated by the social media site without notice.

As of press time, about 60 acts had pulled out of official SXSW showcases in protest of the festival’s military ties, as APC continues to hold event disruptions. “Citizens have sent more than 600 emails to them trying to get them to drop [weapons manufacturers],” says Haider. “It’s clear that they’re choosing to put profit over people despite the damage to their reputation. … They’re just hoping they can skate by and it’ll all blow over, but it’s definitely not gonna blow over.”

The festival had not responded to the Chronicle’s request for comment as of this story’s publication Monday.