Twenty Thousand Litigants Under the Sea: How Intellectual Property Laws are Reinforcing Bad Blood Between Family Members

Family members share with each other. However, family members also sue each other. But at least when you sue a family member you can share a ride to the courthouse. However, it does not look like Celine Cousteau, the granddaughter of famed scientist and explorer Jacques Cousteau, will be sharing a ride with her step-grandmother, Francine Cousteau, to a New York federal courthouse where the two parties are set to litigate what is “the latest battle over the pioneering undersea explorer’s legacy.”

Francine Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s “longtime mistress-turned-second-wife” is the head of The Cousteau Society, which owns “the intellectual property associated with the marine explorer’s name.” Jacques Cousteau’s name, the red hat associated with him (think Bill Murray in A Life Aquatic), and sayings hold “at least 10 U.S. trademark registrations.” Francine believes that her step-granddaughter has made a “flagrant usurpation” of Jacques’ intellectual property and is asking the New York federal court to “preliminarily and permanently enjoin” Celine from using her grandfather’s “name and signature red cap to promote her television program.”

Francine believes that Celine is exploiting her grandfather’s intellectual property rights in order “to manufacture publicity” for her television program.

Celine’s television program aims to share “her grandfather’s work and explorations…[by] revisiting the places her grandfather explored generations before her.” The program is entitled “The Adventure Continues,” which The Cousteau Society argues is “confusingly similar” to Jacques’ popular “The Journey Continues” trademark. The suit also claims that Celine illegally used a “copyrighted image of Jacques in his red cap” for a press kit that she released. Francine believes that Celine is exploiting her grandfather’s intellectual property rights in order “to manufacture publicity” for her television program.

While Francine has a strong case against the granddaughter of her late husband, The Cousteau Society has a long history of going after members of Jacques’ first family. For example, Jacques and the Cousteau Society once brought suit against Jacques’ eldest son from his first marriage, Jean-Michael Cousteau, for opening an “eco-resort” that used the name “Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort.” Ultimately, a San Francisco court ruled in favor of Jacques and ordered, in pertinent part, that the name of the resort be changed to “Jean-Michael Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort,” and that “Jean-Michael must be at least as large as Cousteau in the resort advertising.”

In light of the legal battle between Jacques and his first born, Francine’s litigation against Celine is simply an extension of The Cousteau Society’s tradition of reminding Jacques’ first family that “[d]ynasties have never worked. It is not because a kid is born from your sperm that he has the necessary qualities to replace you.”

Francine’s two children, Diane Cousteau and Pierre Cousteau, sit alongside their mother as board members for the Society. Francine, Diane, and Pierre were at one time Jacques’ “secret family,” and after living “‘in the dark for 15 years’” they are now a legal force not to be reckoned with. In fact, The Cousteau Society received a “six-figure sum” from Walt Disney after Bill Murray wore a red cap similar to Jacques’ in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

The past litigation between Jacques and his son Jean-Michael, the current litigation between Francine and Celine, and the “bad blood between the two factions of the Cousteau family” are all reminders that trademark and patent laws are stronger than family ties. The suit includes claims under federal and state trademark and unfair competition laws, and seeks a permanent injunction, any profits derived from the use of its trademarks, and statutory and punitive damages.”