Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Author: David (page 1 of 6)

No Skipping Steps? The Burdens of Artistry

SCOTUS to hear case on copyright registration requirements

July 10, 2018

Copyright law is quirky. On one hand, you have a copyright the instant you fix your work in a tangible medium of expression.[1] You do not need to do anything else. Copyright protection attaches right away. Yet to actually enforce that copyright against potential infringement requires that the copyright owner take steps to register the copyrighted work with the Copyright Office.[2] That is right – a prerequisite to any lawsuit is registration. This is an added step which requires lawyers and application filing fees. The legal system always seems to be set up to make sure it gets paid first. Funny how that works.

Some states and circuits, however, have operated under a “if the application to register is on file; that is good enough” policy. The Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, is an example of this policy.[3] Strictly speaking, the Fifth Circuit “requires only that the Copyright Office actually receive the application, deposit, and fee before a plaintiff files an infringement action.”[4] For now.

Why is this important? Well, on June 28, 2018, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, to resolve this perceived “split” amongst the circuit courts for what is required to file a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States. This issue will be heard by SCOTUS during the next term. The result will likely impact the strategies of copyright lawyers, including me.

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Something in the Way: Online Guitar Tabs and Copyright Law

Americans buy millions of new guitars every year.[1] Many of these are “entry-level” guitars intended for those trying to learn a new instrument. Yet somewhere in the range of 90% of new guitar players quit trying within the first year. When the electric guitar first became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, there were few ways to accelerate the learning curve. By the late 1990s, along with the advent of the internet, a tool for learning guitar and how to play popular songs reached the masses: guitar tablature or “tab” for short. The concept of tablature was not new, but the ability for an individual to read and acquire tabs through the internet was groundbreaking.

Guitar tab is essentially a shorthand method for transcribing the specific notes and chords of a song in a format that mimics the finger positions on a guitar’s fretboard. Instead of having to learn to read and translate formal sheet music, tablature is simplified. Each note is represented by a number that corresponds to a particular string and location on the fretboard. The beauty of guitar tab is that most anyone who plays guitar can transcribe a song into this format and share it with others as a teaching tool.

Naturally, it did not take long for the internet to respond in kind. Sites with collections of thousands of tabs populated the web seemingly overnight. To the surprise of no one, this also caught the attention of the music publishing industry. And their lawyers. Copyright law concerns threatened to shut down online guitar tab publishing in its entirety.

My question today is simple: while guitar tablature is likely a “derivative work” restricted by copyright law – should it be? Or should there be some sort of expressed fair use exception for guitar tablature? And if not, why not?

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On Copyright Limits: MLK, Mickey Mouse, and Sonny Bono

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The most famous individual from the American civil rights movement left behind a impactful, while often misunderstood legacy, which still resonates across the world today. From an IP perspective, he also left behind a sizable amount of popular copyrighted works. Yes, the “I Have a Dream” speech is still protected by U.S. Copyright law today.

You still need to acquire permission from the King estate to use his works, including his speeches. While the estate has made some questionable decisions about who to license these works to, the fact remains that the estate maintains control over his name, his likeness, and his copyrighted works today.

But did you know that if not for Mickey Mouse and Sonny Bono, that the MLK estate would be losing the rights to these copyrighted works to the public domain this year? It’s true.

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There is no such thing as a “trademark application”

Trademark law is a nuanced discipline. Word choice matters greatly. The use of a particular word, a certain combination of words, the exact construction of a phrase, and/or the precise arrangement of particular terms – each of these can affect the validity and enforceability of a trademark.[1] It is important.

Last week, I was in the middle of a trademark infringement trial in federal court. Opposing counsel colloquially referred to official certificates of registration as “trademarks” and the underlying applications as “trademark applications.” Each time I had to stand up and object. For one simple, yet legally necessary reason:

There is no such thing as a “trademark application.”

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The Super Bowl of Unauthorized Celebrity Exploitation

Last night, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl LII®. By this point, the Super Bowl is more than just a football game. It is a literal spectacle, above and beyond the athletic competition itself. Not only do viewers get exposed to the glitz and glamour of the biggest game of the season, but there is also an extra-long halftime special. Not to mention the heavily-discussed commercials. Often, marketing firms will hire celebrities to appear in these commercials to add a little extra pizzazz. Of course, these celebrities usually agree to appear in these advertisements beforehand, with full knowledge that their likeness is being used for commercial gain. This year’s Super Bowl went a step further.

Prince, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kurt Cobain are some of the most iconic individuals in American history and pop culture. They were also fiercely protective of how their names and images were used when they were alive. Today, their respective estates or other third-parties control how their “publicity rights” and how their likenesses are marketed. Yet somehow each of these three were all featured in different ways during the Super Bowl telecast, often in direct contrast to how they would have presented themselves during their lifetimes. How is this legal? I will try to address this interesting cross-section of trademark, copyright, and publicity right issues here.

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Those *were* the droids I was looking for! Star Wars and its universe of IP rights

On May 25, 1977, George Lucas unleashed Star Wars: A New Hope into the cinematic consciousness. A movie that cost $11 million to make generated nearly $800 million in worldwide box office receipts. Even at the time, it would have been hard to predict the scope of Star Wars in popular culture forty years later. In October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm – and the rights to all things Star Wars – for $4 billion.

Not even Peter Minuit got as good of a deal for his 60 guilders when he acquired Manhattan.

It may not be an understatement to claim that the Star Wars property is collectively the most valuable intellectual property asset in modern history. I am not the first to assert this. Consider the ever-expanding scope of characters, stories, movies, books, toys, multimedia, and all the related technology that can be associated with Star Wars. With Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opening on December 15, 2017, a deeper dive into the scope of Star Wars and its intellectual property universe seems timely and appropriate.

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“Trademark” is not a verb

As a practicing attorney, with a specialization in intellectual property law, I am often asked to assist clients and potential clients with their various trademark needs. Among the more common questions or requests that are posed to me are the following:

“I need to trademark XYZ!”
“My competition is using ABC, but they did not trademark it, so can I use it?”
(and more recently)
“I hear the Supreme Court says you can now trademark offensive terms, is that true?”

While well-intentioned, each of these questions is either grammatically or factually incorrect. Why? Because, quite simply, “trademark” is not a verb and should never be used as a verb in a legal context. “Trademark” is a noun that identifies a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. It is not a process or an action or a series of steps to be accomplished. The word is not a verb. Unfortunately, modern colloquial uses of the term have seeped into the common dialogue. This causes mistakes, unnecessary confusion, and potentially drastic mis-applications of the law by those who are otherwise acting in good faith.

Here’s how and why.

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No, Gene Simmons is not going to get a Trademark Registration for the “Devil Horns” hand gesture. No.

On June 9, 2017, Gene Simmons – the bass player and lead tongue of the classic rock band KISS – filed an application to register a trademark. This by itself is not newsworthy. Gene Simmons has previously sought to register hundreds of words, slogans, and logos he has identified as his personal trademarks. What caught everyone’s attention this time was the subject matter: Gene Simmons asserts that the “devil horns” hand gesture is a trademark that he owns. Yes. A hand gesture. A gesture seen at every single live music event today.

Without belaboring the point, Gene Simmons is not going to acquire a registration for this alleged trademark. This hand gesture is not a trademark. Nor would it belong to Gene Simmons even if it were a trademark.

At the risk of giving too much attention to a frivolous application, here are a few reasons why this application is going to fail.

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Deep in the TC Heartland of Texas: Supreme Court Reverses 25 Years of Patent Venue Practice

June 5, 2017

Marshall, Texas is a town of less than 25,000 residents in East Texas.[1] It is closer to Shreveport, Louisiana than it is to Dallas or to Houston. Nevertheless, since the late 1990s, Marshall has become the epicenter for a series of high-profile patent litigation cases. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 patent infringement cases filed in the United States. At least 1,500 of these filings ended up before Judge Rodney Gilstrap,[2] a judge for the Eastern District of Texas, in the Marshall, Texas division. This was no accident.

As of last month, however, this may all be subject to change.

On May 22, 2017, in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, the United States Supreme Court addressed a dispute regarding the patent venue statute and unanimously held that civil actions for patent infringement may only be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business. Prior to TC Heartland, patent owners could choose to file suit in most any state given that most corporations made or sold products nationwide. This allowed certain courts to set up shop as patent “rocket dockets” which encouraged litigators to choose their venue.

This is how one judge in Marshall, Texas came to oversee, on average, nearly a quarter of all patent infringement cases filed in the United States. Now that TC Heartland is the rule of the land, there are three primary issues to address and explore: (1) how did Marshall, Texas become a “rocket docket” for patent cases?; (2) what rule did the Supreme Court actually change?; and (3) what is likely to happen now?

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President Donald Trump and Intellectual Property: what can he claim as his?

April 20, 2017

In a world of fake news, clickbait, and alternative facts, there is a bit of comfort in knowing at least one undeniable fact. Donald J. Trump is enthusiastic about stamping the TRUMP name on most any goods or services and reaping the benefits of the ancillary trademark rights. He first sought trademark registration for a Trump-branded product in 1985 and has since sought to register in excess of 300 other trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, including the now ubiquitous MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN® mark, which was registered on August 16, 2016.[1] While he often files applications through his various corporate entities, the fact remains: Donald Trump loves him some trademark rights.

This may elicit a few questions though. First, can a sitting POTUS own trademark rights? Also, what about other intellectual property rights: patents, copyrights, trade secrets? Can a U.S. President acquire, assert, enforce, or use with impunity certain types of intellectual property?

I shall do my best to answer these, though I will try to avoid addressing in detail the emoluments clause elephant in the room. For now.

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