I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking: “Why bother with filing a trademark?” And, your next thought: “Even if I need to file, why use a lawyer?” And then: “Who needs a trademark lawyer? The website makes it look easy!” Let me tell you why.
The 19-billion dollar music streaming service Spotify found itself on the wrong end of a major lawsuit at the end of 2017. Wixen Publishing Inc. v. Spotify USA Inc. is still in the complaint phase, but the music industry press is already dissecting the merits of the case — as well as the possible implications of the verdict. Filed in the Central District of California, the case is another test of Spotify’s royalty payment practices after it settled a proposed class action worth 43 million dollars.
Recently I was talking to a client who had an interesting question. “Mark,” she began, “if I were to pay a company to make a custom music box that plays a lullaby that I wrote, do I need to be worried about the company stealing my work?”
The Supreme Court recently denied review of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in the case BWP Media v T&S Software, effectively allowing the Circuit Court’s finding (that volitional conduct is a requirement in cases alleging direct copyright infringement) to stand.
The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) was passed in 1990; but, to date, only around 15 artists have brought cases in attempts to enforce the rights it protects. That’s why it was notable when earlier this month a jury ruled against the developer of 5 Pointz, a case we blogged about earlier this year.
The United States Court of International Trade was recently the setting for an action brought by a company that wished to remain anonymous.
The plaintiff, referred to as XYZ Corporation, had been importing DURACELL batteries into the United States for 27 years. When goods that are genuine products of a trademark owner like DURACELL–but are manufactured outside the United States before being imported–they are called gray goods.
Earlier this year I wrote about a copyright dispute between playwright Matthew Lombardo and the estate of beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss. The issue was whether Lombardo had infringed on the Seuss copyright with his derivative play Who’s Holiday — or whether the play constituted fair use. As I wrote back in March: Who’s Holiday is a profane, one-woman show that documents the life of Cindy-Lou Who after the denouement of Grinch. It finds Cindy living in a trailer park, after having married the Grinch, whom Cindy had murdered (allegedly in self-defense), before the curtain lifts.
Recently the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made news when it granted appellate review of what rights a monkey has to his intellectual property. The case — Naruto, a crested macaque, by and through his next friends, People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA], Inc. v. David John Slater, et al. — settled before the appeal was briefed or argued. According to the settlement, the copyright will remain in the name of the human photographer whose camera was used by the animal — but 25% of future profits will go to charity to benefit wildlife preserves that protect macaques. First, some background. In 2008, a nature photographer named David Slater began following a group of crested macaques in Indonesia. On his second day trying to infiltrate a group of the macaques, he set up his camera on a tripod and left it out in the open. One macaque approached the camera and took dozens of pictures, including three “selfies.” Slater began to enjoy some commercial success with the photos when, in 2015, PETA sued him. The group sought a copyright for the monkey and to administer the resulting proceeds of the photo.
In this post, names and circumstances have been changed to obscure the guilty. Let’s say that my client makes plain sweatshirts, and on the back of some of these blank sweatshirts, someone else had printed Alamo-related text and imagery and was selling them. They were doing this on behalf of a local community baseball team that incorporated the word “Alamo” in its design. And let’s say that a plaintiff named Pat files and owns a registration for the trademark in “Remember the Alamo.” Somewhere along the way, Pat catches sight of these sweatshirts and thinks, “Ah, I’ve got them now. They’re a great big sweatshirt company, and I’ll sue them for trademark infringement as well as copyright infringement, because I have a distinctive way that I present the word ‘Alamo’!” (Interesting note: Pat, who represented himself, only provided extremely low-quality pictures of his design in his complaint. I still don’t think anyone knows what his design looks like.)
In late August, the 9th Circuit in California delivered a blow to a legal argument that was questionable to begin with, and was doomed by the defendant’s eagerness to share it. In Disney v. VidAngel, the culture war served as the background of a battle between content goliaths — Disney, LucasFilm, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers — and “David,” a streaming service called VidAngel. VidAngel is no ordinary streaming service; its main selling point is that it removes “objectionable” material from Hollywood feature films in order to make them more suitable for younger viewers, as well as those adults who wish to spare their eyes and ears from certain aspects of the human experience. It should be noted that none of the edits to the movies were made with the permission of the movie studios.
They said it couldn’t be done, but Kaufman & Kahn recently not only won summary judgment against a prolific cyber-squatter, but also won an award of statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Gregory Ricks, a renowned cyber-squatter, had registered the domain name justbulbs.com, and he’d done that because, frankly, my client named JUST BULBS had failed to renew it. So arbitration was commenced.
As readers may recall, we previously wrote about the confidentiality agreement imposed by then-candidate Donald Trump upon those who worked in his campaign. In that agreement, the workers literally were required to consider, as the definition of “confidential,” anything that Donald Trump determined, in his sole discretion, to be confidential. Now, he is President, and he apparently thinks that’s still true (presumably without doubting whether it was true before he was President). Trump seems to see his view of confidentiality (and non-disparagement) is enforceable upon any and all U.S. Government employees — including ex-FBI Director James Comey, who did not sign any such confidentiality agreement, nor could be compelled to do so. Apparently, that’s why he threatened to bring a lawsuit against the former FBI director on the basis of “leaking.”
Here’s the case of a dark, desert highway with, perhaps, a cool wind in your hair: The Eagles Ltd v. Hotel California of Baja. It concerns a hotel in Mexico that had been opened in the 1950s under the name Hotel California. The owners decided to stop using that name and retitled the property “The Todos Santos Hotel,” catering to American tourists. Recently it was sold again, and the new purchasers went back to using its old name — and proceeded to market it as the “legendary Hotel California.” Promotional literature contained strong allusions that the hotel was the inspiration for the song.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was a contract and a client. The contract gave the client an option to buy a business based on obtaining three appraisals. After the first two appraisals were for the same amount, the seller told the client that he would waive the third appraisal. The seller tendered a contract of sale for $3 million. A couple of weeks passed, the attorneys exchanged suggested revisions, but on the day before the deadline to exercise the option, the seller sent back the contract with a surprise: He has changed it, increasing the price of the sale by $500,000, based on a third appraisal that he had obtained (despite his stated intentions).
The other day a client sent me two pictures. One was of a someone else’s textile design, and the other was my client’s own rendering of it. The client said “We copied our design from their design. Can you tell us whether it’s infringing?” Rather than respond to the email, I called my client and reminded him about the rules of discovery: although any communications I have with my clients—including communications in which a client admits to having copied something—are protected by attorney-client privilege, mistakes can happen when even privileged documents are inadvertently produced in discovery in the event of a lawsuit. Also, if he inadvertently shares those communications with third parties, the attorney-client privilege goes out the window. So, saying incriminating things in emails (or texts or worst of all social media) can live forever in a way that’s inconvenient if not destructive.
What two words are worth $500,000 each? In the case of HOVERBOARD (R) re-seller The Space Chariot, those two word are “UL Certified.” (Yes, HOVERBOARD is a federally registered trademark; while it appears to be on the road to becoming generic, that’s a topic for another day.) Why they are called HOVERBOARDs is beyond me. They clearly have wheels that touch the ground, but if kids (or those “young at heart” who prefer not to use their own horsepower) want to use their imagination, far be it for me to intervene. Most people have seen these devices on the street and have figured out that operating them relies on tilting them with your body weight, much like a Segway scooter. But unlike the Segway, these inventions have a history of bursting into flames at the most inconvenient of locations, which is why so many airlines have banned them from flights.
Parties, events, and weddings are the lifeblood of working musicians. It’s money in the hand, as opposed to what might come out of royalties down the road. This incentive is what led a client to reach out to me recently; he had a great gig booked, was looking forward to it…and then the contract came. The event is being hosted by a large and well known corporation, at a third-party venue, and the pay is good enough to warrant calling an attorney. The contract not only requires each performer to waive their rights of publicity/privacy (in their name and likeness, so photos posted on the internet won’t garner a lawsuit), but also provides, in essence, that “you allow us to record your performance, and you grant us an irrevocable worldwide in perpetuity license to use your performance.”
A lawsuit was recently filed in the Southern District of New York that isn’t exactly fascinating for its merits, but it does speak to the perennial issue of intellectual property rights: the erroneous but popular idea, even among commercial users, that “if it’s on the internet, it’s free to use!” In Bigelow v. Breitbart News Network, LLC, photographer Todd Bigelow is suing Breitbart News over its use of one of his photographs without his permission. In addition to garden-variety copyright infringement, Bigelow also sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, because Breitbart had removed the identification of the artist and its copyright from the image.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of riding outbound LIRR trains from New York’s Penn Station over the years probably remembers a memorable sight: the 5Pointz graffiti artist showcase emblazoned on the exterior walls of some aging factory buildings in Long Island City. Having reached at least a tacit deal with the owner of the buildings, the space provided a venue for graffiti artists to produce photo-realistic murals of hip-hop legends as well as the familiar practice of “tagging,” which consists of writing the artist’s nom-de-guerre with highly imaginative and stylized lettering.
An interesting case was recently decided in the Southern District of New York called Charisma World Wide Corp v. Avon Products. It appears to be a case over intellectual property rights, but decided without relying on intellectual property law. The case was over a technical analysis as to whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction to even listen to the complaint. It hinged on the court’s analyzing whether the conduct that the plaintiff was complaining about had a substantial effect on domestic (that is, U.S.) commerce. Charisma World Wide Corp. (Charisma) is a Panamanian company that sells “renowned products” in Panama under the trademark “Charisma.” America’s own Avon, of door-to-door sales, fame, had been selling similar products in Panama, also called “Charisma.” Both products are cosmetics and, to a casual observer, seem like exactly the same thing.
A copyright dispute late last year forced a holiday play to go dark before the Rockefeller Center tree was ever lit. The suit centers around the play Who’s Holiday by Matthew Lombardo. No, the dispute is not over the apparent typo in the play’s name. Rather, it is that the defendant’s play is based on the character Cindy Lou Who from the beloved Dr. Seuss book The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Whether the play is an unauthorized derivative work (from the perspective of the Dr. Seuss estate) or a parody (from the perspective of the playwright) is what the court ultimately may need to decide. Who’s Holiday is a profane, one-woman show that documents the life of Cindy Lou Who after the denouement of Grinch. It finds Cindy living in a trailer park, after having married the Grinch, whom Cindy had murdered (allegedly in self-defense), before the curtain lifts.
Readers of my blog know that I’m generally in favor of enforcing copyright. If you’ve got the goods on someone and those are your rights, you should be entitled to collect for it — or at least stop it. Likewise, if you’ve been called out for infringing, the right thing to do is usually to pay the pound of flesh required of you. But how does the would-be defendant know whether paying it will actually solve the matter? A client recently received a demand letter from a licensing agency for allegedly infringing on a copyright owned by a newspaper in Europe. The notice was referring to my client’s use of, let’s say, the famous image of a French boy running with a baguette on a relatively private — and certainly a non-profitable — website. In this case the pound of flesh was only a couple hundred bucks, but I was motivated by the sense that the purported licensor was a greedy, undeserving troll until proven legitimate.
To boldly go where no nerds have gone before… In Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc. the U.S. District Court for Central California was presented with a case of fan fiction gone awry. A small studio called Axanar Productions set out to produce a piece of Star Trek fan fiction centered around an obscure character named Garth of Izar. It was to be a feature-length film set as a prequel to the 1973 original series. In order to finance the production, the studio hosted a crowdsourcing campaign that was successful in raising $1.1 million.
Ironically, the same week that the president of Mexico declined to meet with the president of a formerly friendly nation because of various perceived (and perhaps actual) insults, the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) granted a decision in favor of a Mexican non-profit association of distilleries. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila was granted a certification mark for the appellation ‘Tequila.’ According to the U.S. Trademark statute, a “certification mark”
means any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof to certify regional or other origin, material, mode of manufacture, quality, accuracy, or other characteristics of such person’s goods or services ….So the TTAB determined that, despite its most unfortunate location South of the Soon to Be Very Tall Border, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila can control the use of the word ‘Tequila’ within the United States.
You might think that the inaccuracy of the following statement is obvious: “If it’s on the internet, it’s free.”‘ Still, many of today’s internet users, including business owners, seem to believe it and use what they download with litigious results. There are at least two lawsuits in the Southern District of New York—Veronina v. Scores Holding Company and Taylor v. 44th Enterprises, d/b/a Diamond Club Gentlemen’s Cabaret—that involve the unauthorized use of images downloaded from the internet. Specifically, dozens of women are suing over the use of their photos in advertisements for strip clubs and escort services. (Not surprisingly, both cases are brought by the same attorneys.)
Big girls may not cry, but the creative team behind the smash Broadway musical Jersey Boys might be doing just Creative Team Behind Broadway’s Jersey Boys Hit with Copyright Infringement that. On November 28, a jury in Nevada federal court found that the musical’s creators were guilty of copyright infringement—to the tune of 10% of the show’s profits. Jersey Boys centers around the life and times of 1960s doo-wop group The Four Seasons. After retirement, Tommy DeVito, who was a founding member of the band, began work on an autobiography with the help of a ghostwriter (also known as an “uncredited co-author”) named Rex Woodward. After Woodward succumbed to lung cancer in 1991, DeVito changed his tune about who had written the unfinished book, claiming that he alone authored it. Further, he gave permission for it to be used as the basis for the musical that would become Jersey Boys.
A new client came to me admitting that he’d been defrauded hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the most direct route would be to sue the other party now and ask questions later, it’s in my client’s interest to get a result that’s actually payable—not to mention that unnecessary litigation is not a good use of money. For his part, the debtor claimed to want to do the right thing and create an agreement that would allow him to pay the debt back over time. This led me on a law-finding mission to determine how my client might be impacted if the debtor later filed for bankruptcy. Would an agreement constitute a waiver of my client’s rights to hold the debtor liable for the fraud?
A recent court decision in Kings County called Della Pietra v. Poly Prep Country Day School has expanded who can bring a cause of action under whistleblower provisions of the New York Not-for-Profit Corporation Law. While the case is significant, and potentially persuasive, it is not a binding precedent. The facts of the case are interesting. Della Pietra was working at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day School when an administrator, employees, students and alumni took a trip to Cuba, apparently for the stated purpose of “a learning experience.” Indeed. Pietra became privy to what really occurred in Cuba: underage drinking, smoking, and participation in prostitution. When she went to the Board of Trustees and reported what she knew, she was allegedly harassed, defamed and ultimately fired.
Sometimes, in the heat of a new project or business opportunity, slowing down to make a written agreement seems boring, unnecessary, and even adversarial. When everything is going well, the parties can feel that reducing it to writing means they don’t trust each other. But an interesting, recent case illustrates exactly how important it is to “get it in writing”—and offers a lesson to anyone to confirm what each side expects in order to avoid a substantial misunderstanding.
Recently a lawsuit over a prominent band’s name was filed in state court in Virginia. At first glance, the lawsuit has the ingredients required for an intellectual property case eligible for federal jurisdiction. So why is it being argued in state court? The lead plaintiff, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, began playing with Bob Marley and his band The Wailers in 1969. After the original band members dropped out, Barrett was the last remaining original member until he quit earlier this year. However, The Wailers did not miss a beat and kept touring all over the world.