Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Tag: likelihood of confusion

Run-DMC sues Amazon and Wal-Mart. Trademark infringement is tricky, tricky, tricky.

On December 29, 2016, music group Run-DMC, an inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame™, filed a lawsuit against online retailer Amazon.com, big box store Wal-Mart, and a series of manufacturing entities and suppliers.[1] Run-DMC claims to own a registered trademark, in addition to other intellectual property that the lawsuit asserts has generated over $100,000,000 since the 1980s. Run-DMC alleges that Amazon and Wal-Mart are liable for trademark infringement and trademark dilution. It seeks a permanent injunction and monetary damages of $50,000,000.

How did Amazon and Wal-Mart find themselves at the center of a high-profile trademark infringement action against one of the most iconic and influential musical groups of the modern era? Is this mere oversight or a concerted effort to trade on the goodwill of the RUN-DMC brand? Similarly, how is Amazon liable if it merely allowed a third-party entity to offer a product through its site?

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Why You Should Register Your Trademarks

Trademarks and trademark law are a tricky legal property. For one, trademarks are technically “owned” by the individual or entity that uses the mark in association with goods or services in commerce. Yet the underlying purpose of trademarks is to protect the relevant consumer. Trademarks are only valuable (and protectable) to the extent the consumer associates that mark with the source of particular goods and services.

How do you get a trademark? It is not difficult. The exact moment you select a word, logo, slogan, phrase, or design – and “use” it in association with particular goods and services in the stream of commerce, it becomes a legal trademark. While the definition of “use” can be nebulous and imprecise, essentially any sales or marketing efforts that target consumers or customers across interstate lines can be proper trademark “use” that breathes life into a mark. This provides what is known as “common law” trademark rights. These rights are enforceable in a court of law.

The obvious follow-up question then is: if getting a trademark is so easy, why should I bother going through the process of applying for a state or federal trademark registration? What do I get for my money? We have now stumbled across the purpose of this article.

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A ‘Golden’ Opportunity to Talk About Team Names and Trademark Rights

On December 8, 2016, ESPN’s website ran with the scandalous headline “Patent office denies Golden Knights trademark” regarding the new Las Vegas NHL franchise’s recently chosen moniker.[1] The article subsequently provided a detailed analysis of all the supposed ways in which “Golden Knights” allegedly could not be a trademark that belonged to the NHL team. As you may have gathered, I am writing this article to clarify that misconception.

There are numerous statements and implications in that article that are dangerously misleading. Trademark law is quite nuanced. But ESPN continues to attack it with a sledge hammer. If nothing else, it provides me a good opening to discuss some of these nuances in trademarks and how they may apply to professional and college sports teams’ nicknames.

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Olympic Trademarks are Sacred. And Easily Infringed.

August 4, 2016

The 2016 Olympic Games® in Rio are set to officially open this Friday, August 5, 2016.[1] Every four years, for a glorious 16 days, the world gathers in unison to watch athletes compete for the gold medal in a multitude of games in varying degrees of popularity. The world also gathers to sell you things. Lots and lots of goods and services will be offered through fancy advertising. Many of these ads will exploit the famous Olympic rings and pictures of the Games in association with certain products. “Official sponsor of the Olympic Games” being a key phrase.

Why is this? It is because the Olympic Games are serious business. Not surprisingly, the use of Olympic-themed trademarks is equally serious business. Even in the United States, these trademark rights supersede U.S. trademark law in many areas and are granted a “privileged status.”[2] The International Olympic Committee (IOC) owns most of these trademarks and it is hyper-vigilant in its enforcement of the uses of these marks.

What constitutes an Olympic trademark? Why are they given special privileges? Let’s explore!

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What’s in a name? Houston area law schools now in a trademark dispute

June 29, 2016

On June 22, 2016, South Texas College of Law announced that it was changing the name of the school to “Houston College of Law.” The school also introduced a new color scheme on its website[1] that is predominantly red and white, with shades of gray. As a bookend to the public announcement, it appears the school also filed a trademark application for the word and design mark HOUSTON COLLEGE OF LAW EST. 1923, with a filing date of May 12, 2016.[2] The trademark application also asserts a date of first use of April 6, 2016.

Name changes can be a good thing. Typically. A rebranding can assist in drawing attention to a stale mark or product. It can attract new customers. It can introduce a product or service into a previously under-represented industry. In essence, this is what trademarks are for: to assist the consuming public in identifying the source of goods and services. The only problem is that “Houston College of Law” looks and sounds like “University of Houston Law Center,” which has been in existence in the same geographical area since approximately 1947.[3] The University of Houston has also embraced a red-and-white color scheme since the late 1930s.

As you can imagine, this name change and color scheme did not sit well with the other local law school. On Monday, June 27, 2016, the Board of Regents of the University of Houston System filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division against South Texas College of Law.[4] The Complaint asserts causes of action for trademark infringement, unfair competition and false designation of origin, false advertising, dilution by blurring or tarnishment, and related state and common law claims.[5]

Now that this matter is in the court system, what can be expected and how should this play out?

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Lady Gaga is not famous – according to the Trademark Office

Lady Gaga is an American recording artist.[1] She is a singer, a songwriter, and a performer. She recently won a Golden Globe® for her work on the American Horror Story television show. She also was nominated for an Oscar® in 2016.[2] As of 2016, she has sold over 27 million albums worldwide. She also owns registrations for her “Lady Gaga” stage name.[3] I feel confident in stating that Lady Gaga is famous.

Yet in an opinion dated March 30, 2016,[4] the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board determined that “the evidence in the record does not rise to the level needed to show that LADY GAGA has achieved true fame among consumers…”[5] Apparently, not even Lady Gaga’s trademarks are commercially recognizable enough to be deemed legally famous in certain areas.

If LADY GAGA is not famous, then how does one reach the level of “fame” in the context of trademarks? This appears to be an absurdly high standard of proof. How do we explain a legal opinion that seems so entirely disconnected from reality?

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