Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Month: February 2016

Are sex toys “useful articles” under copyright law?

Copyrights are seemingly everywhere. From music to movies to television to paintings and sculptures. Copyright issues are also ever-present when it comes to internet content, books and scholastic articles. Most anything that is an original expression that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression can be covered by the scope of 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (the U.S. Copyright Act).

The hurdle for copyright qualification is low, though there are exceptions, and certain things are never subject to copyright protection. For example, government works are not copyrighted pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 105.[1] Additionally, you cannot copyright simple words or phrases – as this is instead the subject of trademark law. We have also previously discussed (in the context of Halloween costumes) the fact that you cannot acquire a copyright on what is considered a “useful article” or that which is “an object having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information” as defined by 17 U.S.C. § 101.

Which brings us to the topic du jour: what about sex toys? Are sex toys “useful articles” that are not subject to copyright protection?

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Has the OREO trademark become generic?

Generic trademarks are no joke. Earlier this week, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the trademark BOOKING.COM was generic for travel agency and hotel reservation services. Legally speaking, if a mark is generic, it no longer serves the purpose of a trademark and cannot be protected or enforced against third party uses. According to the TTAB’s ruling, booking.com operates to essentially identify the product itself and does not operate as a source-identifier to customers. Therefore no one is entitled to exclusive use of this term in commerce.

This news triggered a few things in my mind. Recently, a friend of mine and I had lunch at a nice restaurant in the Houston area. This restaurant offered a particular dessert offering – a dressed-up, fancy Oreo cookie.[1] Now, being a trademark nerd, I noticed the lack of any trademark designation on the menu listing. No ™. No ®. And no disclaimer in the fine print suggesting that “Oreo” is a trademark owned by someone else and licensed to this restaurant. Nothing of the sort. My friend and I joked about this for a while until it occurred to me that I may have stumbled upon something interesting:

Has OREO become a generic term that no longer functions as a trademark?

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Is Donald Trump a cybersquatter?

Donald Trump is an expert level troll. He is in the midst of the most unconventional Presidential campaign of the Internet era. Political scientists still cannot categorize or describe him as a candidate. Meanwhile, Trump continues to hoard the media’s attention for everything he does. Most recently, Trump gained attention when visitors to JebBush.com were instead being re-directed to Trump’s own campaign website.

It seems that as early as December 8, 2015, someone purchased the domain for JebBush.com and, to the chagrin of the Bush campaign, sent visitors and Bush supporters to his rival’s official website – www.donaldjtrump.com. For the record, JebBush.com is not the official website of the Bush campaign. Additionally, Trump and his campaign team deny any direct involvement in the prank, though the current owner of the JebBush.com domain is remaining silent for now.

Just for fun, however, let us assume that Donald Trump is responsible for the domain name purchase and the re-direct to his own campaign site. Is this legal? Does this make Trump a no-good cybersquatter and trademark infringer? Let’s explore!

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Why the NFL does not want you to say “S— B—”… and how the NFL may be wrong

On Sunday, February 7, 2016, the Carolina Panthers® and Denver Broncos® will take the field for the kickoff of Super Bowl® 50. This is the annual showcase game for the National Football League®. In the interim time, the NFL® has assembled an army of lawyers that are ready, willing and able to send a bevy of cease-and-desist letters to any individual or entity that has the audacity to use certain terms or phrases that the league perceives might dilute or infringe famous trademarks that belong to the NFL.[1]

The Super Bowl is practically an American institution, now in its fiftieth year. Many groups contend that the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. In fact, a formal petition was once initiated for that very purpose. As a result, you will see and hear numerous advertisements leading up to the Super Bowl promoting numerous goods and services. It is kind of a big deal. What you are unlikely to hear in these advertisements, however, is quite noteworthy. You will rarely hear any advertisement use the term SUPER BOWL.

Why are we reduced to using nebulous terms like “The Big Game” or “The Pro Football Championship” to identify and describe a game? Why is the NFL so trigger-happy in seeking to stop all uses of “Super Bowl” that are not made by direct sponsors of the league or the television broadcast? What is the legal basis for the NFL’s position on this matter? Is it possible that the NFL is wrong? (Spoiler alert: YES!)

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