Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Category: Whimsical (page 1 of 4)

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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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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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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Put Your Name On It! President Trump and IP Ownership

What does President Trump own?

April 5, 2019

If there is one singular, defining character trait of Donald J. Trump, it is this: he really, really likes putting the TRUMP name on things. Hotels, casinos, residential towers, television shows, books, golf courses, beauty pageants, steaks, universities, business plans, and on and on. It is kind of his thing. And he is exceptionally good at marketing the Trump name when he uses it.

The moment Donald Trump ran for president, and was subsequently elected – the ways he could use market that TRUMP brand grew exponentially. And I do not use the term “brand” lightly. Because for someone like me, the underlying question is this: what IP rights in his name and likeness does Donald Trump still own? Most recently, Trump has put the TRUMP brand on images of the White House. These images are now subsequently being sold online and at his various hotels.

I have written about some of these issues before,[1] and once again, I will not try to address any issues with the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Nor will this article be about the purported morality of such things, but instead an analysis of what IP rights are available for protection. Can President Trump own copyrights of his image? Can President Trump use the TRUMP name as a trademark and protect it like a private citizen? Can President Trump use White House and U.S. government imagery in tandem with his name and assert personal rights in these products? It is not such an easy answer.

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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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An “Unusual” Publicity Rights Claim

Alfonso Ribeiro sues video game makers over the “Carlton Dance”

December 19, 2018

On Monday, December 17, 2018, Alfonso Ribeiro, an actor best known for roles on “Silver Spoons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” filed two separate lawsuits regarding copyright and publicity rights associated with what is colloquially known as the “Carlton Dance.”[1] Ribeiro sued the makers of the popular Fortnite and NBA2K games for their allegedly unauthorized uses of this dance choreography. His causes of action are based on copyright infringement, violation of publicity rights (California state law), and state and federal unfair competition claims.

The lawsuit(s) begin by asserting that Ribeiro is “an internationally famous Hollywood star, known for his starring role as Carlton Banks from the hit television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and as host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Ribeiro created his highly recognizable “Dance,” that has also been referred to by the public as “The Carlton Dance,” which exploded in popularity and became highly recognizable as Ribeiro’s signature dance internationally. The Dance is now inextricably linked to Ribeiro and has continued to be a part of his celebrity persona.” The lawsuits later allege that “The Dance has become synonymous with Ribeiro.” In short, these assertions are wildly debatable. Given the national attention this case has received, I would like to look at some of the legal issues raised by these lawsuits and address the possible and likely defenses to Ribeiro’s claims and contentions.

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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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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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