… 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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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. 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
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.
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. I
would therefore like to take the opportunity to explain the differences in
these two legal doctrines. Because not all “infringements” are identical acts.
In May 2019, Gibson Brands,
Inc. sued Armadillo Distribution Enterprises, Inc. for trademark
infringement, unfair competition, and counterfeiting.
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
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
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
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.
Copyright law is an interesting subsection of the legal
field. Fun fact: the Founding Fathers cared more about protecting copyrights
than any nebulous free speech rights. The right to copyright is established in
the original U.S. Constitution
enacted in September 1787. The Bill of Rights did not exist until 1789.
Additionally, one of the really cool quirks about copyrights
is how they are created. Copyright exists “the moment it is
created and fixed in a tangible form.” Alas, this cool quirk appears to
only be true in form, but not in substance. For the United States Supreme Court
recently ruled that before you can enforce a copyright, you must first go
through the complete administrative process of registering that copyright with the Copyright Office.
While the Court recognized that it is not an ideal situation, it effectively threw its hands up and said “the law is the law” without really addressing the downstream effects. I would now like to take the time to do what the Court would not, and address the direct effects of this new “registration is required” copyright world.
January 2, 2019
On Friday, December 28, 2018, Nirvana, LLC sued Marc Jacobs International, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nieman Marcus for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. The crux of the dispute is over a new line of clothing being introduced by Marc Jacobs dubbed “Bootleg Redux Grunge” that he intends to sell to the public at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus stores. In short, these “grunge” clothes are being marketed to a high-end socioeconomic demographic that is antithetical to everything Kurt Cobain and Nirvana stood for. Because of course they are.
The real dispute is over the appropriation of the iconic Nirvana “smiley face” logo and what Nirvana contends is a derivative, non-transformative use by Marc Jacobs. I will not go too in-depth on the specific claims other than to say: yes, this is an infringement and Marc Jacobs is most certainly trying to associate this clothing line with famous Nirvana trademarks and copyrighted works. It is shameless. Everyone involved should be embarrassed. Yes, including Nirvana’s own lawyers – for reasons I will address.
Of course, I am biased. Nirvana is my favorite musical group of all-time and hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time when I was 14 years old was nothing short of a life-changing experience. Like millions of others, I also own one of the famous “smiley face” t-shirts and other merchandise bearing that image. This is a blog about trademark and copyright law, meanwhile – so let us break down the claims made against Marc Jacobs.
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.