Generic Fair Use

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Category: Music (page 1 of 2)

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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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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The Added Burden of Artistry: Copyright Registration as a necessary pre-requisite

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.

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Pay to Play: Nirvana sues Marc Jacobs over clothing line

January 2, 2019

On Friday, December 28, 2018, Nirvana, LLC[1] 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.[2] 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.

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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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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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