City Pages – March 15, 2017
By Mike Mullen
Around the Minnesota Capitol, Xcel Energy is the corporation that need not speak its name.
Consider the legislation passed last month, allowing “a public utility” to “construct, own and operate” a natural gas power plant in Becker, a small town in central Minnesota. …
A bipartisan, mostly Republican House majority passed a version of the bill within a week of Xcel’s investor call. The Senate soon fell in line.
With the deal all but done, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance threw a Hail Mary. The nonprofit, which advocates for consumer and eco-friendly economics, produced a short, pithy video, in the hopes of convincing Gov. Mark Dayton to veto the bill.
The video parodies a recent Xcel TV ad. Essentially, it is an Xcel ad, but with more honest audio dubbed in as voiceover.
“Guess what’s in this box,” says a cheerful Xcel representative. “No, don’t. I’ll just tell you.”
“A massive fossil fuel power plant,” the voiceover cuts in. It goes on to note the Becker facility would “cost ratepayers over $5 billion in the next 20 years,” making it a “win — if you’re an Xcel shareholder.”
The Institute distributed the video through social media. Whether it reached the governor’s attention is unclear. It certainly got Xcel’s.
On February 24, the nonprofit got a letter from Merchant & Gould, a Minneapolis law firm specializing in intellectual property. The letter claimed the Institute engaged in “clear copyright and trademark infringement,” and demanded it cease and desist immediately.
Sharon Sandeen, a law professor at Hamline University, says copyright cases are very “fact-specific,” but the Institute probably had a good shot at defending its tape.
The video was obvious parody and not made for profit, helping the Institute’s case. But you “can’t guarantee” a judge’s ruling. Or a lawsuit’s cost.
The Institute gave in to Xcel’s bullying and pulled the video. The nonprofit employs all of 15 people across three states. A loss in court would’ve destroyed it.
Says John Farrell, director of the Institute’s “democratic energy” team: “Xcel was, unfortunately, perfectly successful in getting us to take [the video] down when it mattered.”