Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Space Force v. “Space Force” – a trademark kerfuffle

On May 29, 2020, Netflix released a new comedy television series starring Steve Carrell titled “Space Force.” It is a workplace comedy from one of the creators of “The Office” that focuses on the presumed sixth branch of the United States military. This concept is directly derived from the United States’ Space Force that was announced by President Trump and authorized by Congress on December 20, 2019.

By any standard, the existence of both things is somewhat of a farce. Making things even stranger is that no one seems to understand how names and titles and trademarks work, which led to a series of articles this week about the purported trademark rights to SPACE FORCE being lost by the United States government. This premise is ridiculous and this article will attempt to explain why this is a non-story.

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“You Really Think You Can Fly That Thing?” On Donald Trump, Independence Day Deepfakes, and the Copyright Defenses of Parody and Satire

On Saturday evening, May 16, 2020, Donald Trump shared a cartoonish deepfake video to his Twitter account. Trump’s 80 million followers saw an edited video of the famous speech from the 1996 movie “Independence Day,” only with the faces of the characters being edited to reflect certain individuals in politics and pop culture, namely with Trump’s face superimposed over Bill Pullman’s face (but not his voice).

While this predictably led to outrage from various corners of the internet, including from Bill Pullman himself, the most common complaint seemed to be “isn’t this copyright infringement?” The answer to this question, as always, is: well, maybe.

Trump is unlikely to have acquired permission to use this clip from Disney[1], including any right to create or share derivative works,[2] but whether or not Trump’s uses constitute copyright infringement is not an easy answer. Copyright is not absolute. There are always defenses to allegations of infringement. Trump could assert the defense of fair use, specifically the right to use the work as part of a parody – which the Supreme Court has held is a fair use of copyright.

If this use is considered a parody, legal precedent holds that Trump did not infringe any copyrights. What if Trump’s use is instead considered satire? Yes, there is a difference between “parody” and “satire” and these distinctions are significant in a copyright fair use analysis.

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Bait and Switch Advertising in 2020: Is Grubhub violating the Lanham Act?

Even in the midst of a pandemic and an unofficial national lockdown, people still have to eat. With outings to the local restaurant and trips to the grocery store being potentially risky, food delivery services have become an essential part of American life in 2020. For large-scale service providers like Grubhub, it has been a relative goldmine for business.

But is Grubhub scamming us all? On May 15, 2020, BuzzFeed reported that even if you seek to bypass Grubhub service fees by calling restaurants directly, you may have been fooled by a bait-and-switch phone number. These restaurants are still paying Grubhub for extra fees.

How is this legal? More specifically, is this a violation of the Lanham Act for false advertising or customer confusion and deception?

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Coronavirus: Copyright Law and Revisionist History on the Internet

The only relevant thing in the news these days is information about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. More formally known as coronavirus disease of 2019 and the underlying virus causing it: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). There has not been much else worthy of writing about or reading about for a couple of months now. This is for good reason. COVID-19 is deadly serious and not to be underestimated.

Someone did not get this memo to multiple talking heads on television and the internet. Truth be told, I am not here to litigate the underlying science of the coronavirus. But I am absolutely here to dunk on those who initially went out of their way to downplay the pandemic only to later engage in lazy revisionist history. There are too many to name, but one in particular caught my attention. Because this person brought the law into it; thus bringing it directly into my area of expertise.

Hello, Dr. Drew. Please take a seat while we discuss “copywrite” laws.

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Prince spooks YouTube over Copyright Infringement (again)

… and your own concert video recordings on YouTube could be infringing, too

Prince has been gone for nearly four years. But his presence still looms large over copyright law. Even in death, Prince’s estate continues to keep a watchful eye over potential infringers of his musical works.[1] The latest dispute is a potentially haunting restriction of a popular feature on YouTube: people posting video clips of live performances. On January 6, 2020, the federal district court in Massachusetts determined that Prince’s estate has the sole right to distribute video clips of his live performances and that uploading certain song clips to a YouTube channel may even constitute copyright infringement.[2]

This case presents a multitude of legal issues to assess. Additionally, this ruling leaves a potential to a technology-based philosophical conundrum for future copyright cases as they intersect with YouTube style sites. I have a YouTube channel. On this channel I have posted covers of songs that I play on guitar. My videos are nothing fancy, but this recent case and others like it have determined that these videos can actually be infringing works. This article will try to address these legal landmines while exploring any possibility for copyright law as it exists today to be reconciled with how these personal camera-phone videos are treated by the law.

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That’s Not How Any of This Works! Cultural Phrases and the Failure to Function as a Trademark

As of this morning, there are seven (7) pending applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to register some variation of OK BOOMER as a trademark.[1] Thanks in part to the New York Times article in October, the casually dismissive phrase “ok, boomer” went from a limited internet audience to a mocking cultural term du jour. Inspired would-be entrepreneurs rushed to file applications with the USPTO to “own” this phrase as a trademark.

It is unlikely any of these applications will mature into a trademark registration. Simply put, this is not how trademarks work. Following in the footsteps of such whimsical terms like COVFEFE, TACO TUESDAY, and ALTERNATIVE FACTS, most of these alleged marks will fail to acquire a registration from the USPTO.

Because they almost certainly fail to function as trademarks.

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Seeing “Red”: Taylor Swift and the Dueling Copyrights in a Song

Taylor Swift is one of the most prominent and successful musical artists of this decade. She has registered over 100 song copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.[1] Of course, Swift was a teenager when she first entered the music industry. The stories of exploitation within the industry by record companies, managers, agents and representatives are vast. It appears not even Taylor Swift was immune from a rather nasty dispute with the entity that produced her first six albums.

Over the weekend, Swift sent out a tweet to her 85 million Twitter followers.

While I am very familiar with who Taylor Swift is (though I prefer Tool), there are enough stories about her ongoing dispute with Scooter Braun, Scott Borschetta and Big Machine Records. I will let someone else explain the gossipy details involved there. Nor will I perform any deep dives into the private equity acquisition of Ms. Swift’s former record company that led us to these contractual impasses. Elizabeth Warren and AOC have already dipped their toes into that murky water.

Instead, I immediately realized this topic has copyright law implications. Did you know that most recorded songs have at least two separate copyrights associated with them? That is partially why there is such drama between Taylor Swift and Big Machine’s new owners. Ms. Swift, for one, very much does not welcome these new corporate overlords.

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Top 10 Misconceptions about LeBron and Ohio State’s Trademark Filings

Trademark law is quirky. Look no further than the attention being given to recent filings to the USPTO by LeBron James and Ohio State University. TACO TUESDAY and THE. These legal matters are receiving substantial media coverage. But the subsequent news blurbs, articles, and media stories all seem to have one important thing in common:

Nearly everyone is wrong about what is going on here.

At this point, I expect ESPN and Darren Rovell to fail at describing the intricate proceedings of trademark matters. That much is a given. It is everyone else piling on these stories that is making me nervous. Accordingly, to address these issues, and because the internet practically runs on top 10 lists, here are 10 misconceptions about LeBron and Ohio State’s trademark filings.

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Eye of the Beholder: The differences between “trademark infringement” and “copyright infringement”

July 31, 2019

The music industry has been in the news a lot recently regarding intellectual property rights and related disputes. Just this week, a federal jury determined that Katy Perry was liable for copyright infringement. This tracks with the ongoing trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Gibson Brands, Inc., which continues to fascinate me.

Though in my research of these various topics and the feedback I have received from writing about these legal issues, I have learned that the terms “trademark” and “copyright” are being used interchangeably by the public. This is troubling because they are absolutely not the same thing.[1] I would therefore like to take the opportunity to explain the differences in these two legal doctrines. Because not all “infringements” are identical acts.

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The Shape of Things: Gibson sues Dean Guitars for Trademark Infringement

In May 2019, Gibson Brands, Inc. sued Armadillo Distribution Enterprises, Inc. for trademark infringement, unfair competition, and counterfeiting.[1] Armadillo may not be a well known name, but it is affiliated with the guitar brands Dean Guitars and Luna Guitars, which compete with Gibson. Gibson is one of the most prominent names in the electric guitar industry, alongside Fender. In this lawsuit, Gibson accuses Armadillo/Dean of infringing at least four “body shapes” of its electric guitar models: the Flying V, the Explorer, the ES, and the SG, each of which Gibson cites as a registered trademark.[2]

This case caught my attention because I am a guitar player and I often write about music and the music industry as it relates to trademarks and copyrights. Here are just a few examples. I do not personally own any Gibson-branded guitars (they are too heavy in the neck), but I do own one acoustic Dean Guitar – though not one of the types that is accused of infringement in this case. With regard to electric guitars, I prefer Schecter Guitars. Always a Hellraiser™.

Armadillo has not yet responded with an Answer to this lawsuit, but I anticipate Dean Guitars will present a substantial defense to all of Gibson’s claims. It is important to note that this is not a patent case. This is not about who “invented” the particular shape or style of an electric guitar. Any patent rights for these designs would have expired decades ago. Instead, this dispute concerns trademarks. It essentially seeks to determine whether a particular shape of a guitar evokes a specific source in the minds of the relevant consuming public. With regard to the guitar industry, there is a long history associated with these particular “body shapes” and how they impact pop culture and the competition between the most popular brands and manufacturers.

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