September 28, 2005,
If you saw a girl wearing a t-shirt that read “Prairie Ho Companion,” what would you think? Would you think that Garrison Keillor, producer and star of A Prairie Home Companion, had suddenly decided to horn in on Snoop Dogg’s audience? Or would you think that somebody was engaging in a bit of perfectly harmless fun at Keillor’s expense?
Well, Rex Sorgatz knows what Keillor’s lawyers think. The Minnesota-based founder of MNspeak.com became the recipient of a “cease and desist” letter from them after he began selling “Ho” shirts over the summer.
“We believe that your use of these words creates a likelihood that the public will be confused as to the sponsorship of the T-shirt and our client’s services and products. Because of the high probability of confusion . . . we hereby demand that you immediately abandon all use of ‘A Prairie Ho Companion,’” read the Aug. 29 letter from Nilsson and Associates, P.A. If he doesn’t, well, “we shall advise our client to pursue his legal remedies and enforce his rights.”
Sorgatz didn’t think it was among Keillor’s funnier productions. “Garrison Keillor a liberal comedian! is threatening to sue MNspeak some blog! that uses a t-shirt to poke fun (at) his mega-gigantic media empire. You’d think we shot Guy Noir or something,” he wrote in a Sept. 13 posting. He’s cooled down a bit since then and says he’s complying with the cease and desist order. But he still can’t resist zinging Keillor and his lawyers. To win the case, “you’d have to argue in court that basically Minnesotans are stupid people,” he told National Review Online.
The story abounds in ironies, none of which reflect well on Keillor. Sorgatz says he founded MNSpeak.com just three months ago to provide a forum for local Minnesotans to post on local news, events, and entertainment. In other words, it’s the type of small, grassroots community that Keillor’s work supposedly honors. In fact, it was MNSpeak.com’s fans that wanted the t-shirt, Sorgatz says. He solicited ideas in a blog posting. “Ho” was the readers’ choice.
Another irony is that Keillor himself is a parodist, with little reticence about going after other public figures. In 1999, he devoted an entire book to mocking then-governor Jesse Ventura. There’s also the fact that Keillor fancies himself a defender of free speech and the First Amendment. Earlier this month he was attacking the proposed Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act in a column in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. “Congress can sometimes be so removed from reality that it goes after a mosquito with a chainsaw,” . And finally, let’s remember that Keillor himself sells parody t-shirts, including one that says: Old Lutheran: 95 Varieties.”
Considering all this, one might conclude that Keillor is a humorless old jerk and a money-grubbing hypocrite. Your humble correspondent emphatically does not believe this and, FYI, the fact that Keillor retains lawyers with a willingness to sue people on his behalf in no way informed my judgment on this point.
Merchandising may be what’s really at issue here. A Prairie Home Companion movie is set for release next year. Keillor is probably expecting an upsurge in sales of PHC-related clothing, books, and other knick-knacks from it. Indeed, Keillor’s lawyers admitted as much. “This isn’t about him (Sorgatz). It’s about protecting the (A Prairie Home Companion) copyright,” said Eric Nilsson, Keillor’s attorney. And, yes, the letter was sent with Keillor’s knowledge, he adds. A spokesperson for Prairie Home Productions, which produces the show, made the same point in an e-mail to NRO.
Sorgatz surmises that the lawyers first learned about MNSpeak.com’s t-shirts when they were mentioned in a New York Times story about the movie’s filming in Minnesota. “I tried to get Lindsay Lohan a t-shirt,” he explained. Nilsson conceded there was a “fair use” legal defense that Sorgatz could have used. Sorgatz isn’t eager to test it though.
Despite offers from “dozens” of lawyers “I’ve had professors at Stanford who wanted to take the case,” he says Sorgatz has decided not to try his luck in court. “Becoming a litigant is exactly the thing I’m trying to avoid,” he said. So he’s no longer offering the t-shirts. A grand total of 35 were sold. Keillor’s financial empire is safe for the moment.
Keillor may regret threatening MNSpeak.com anyway. Since Sorgatz went public with the letter, the website has been linked to by popular blogs such as Powerline, Reason’s Hit and Run, Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, NRO’s The Corner, and even the lefty site Daily Kos, which was particularly critical. Hits on MNSpeak.com site have gone from 3,000 a day to, at its peak, 500,000 a day, according to Sorgatz.
Little of the reaction has been positive towards Keillor, who has apparently been silent himself on the matter. Nilsson actually asserted in his interview with NRO to argue that it was Sorgatz who was the bully here for going public. Sorgatz, meanwhile, says he’s actually turned down interview offers, including one from The Daily Show.
Sorgatz says he's a bit exasperated by the whole affair, especially the way it evolved into a political issue for many bloggers. Sorgatz isn't a conservative and has no issue with Keillor's politics.
To be sure, copyright infringement can be a serious matter and Keillor is certainly within his rights to protect his property. Still, the irony here is pretty rich. Keillor, who prides himself on representing small-town America, has been caught acting exactly like the type of rich, cold, unfeeling “hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills” he loves to rail against.
Who knew they drank brandy and smoked cigars at Lake Wobegon?
Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investor's Business Daily.