Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Tag: litigation

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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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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The force is strong with Star Wars intellectual property

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015.  It will be the biggest movie of the year.  It will also likely be the most infringed copyrighted work of the year (and 2016, too).  It will be the seventh official full-length Star Wars movie to be released in theaters since 1977.  Though I recently re-watched the prequels and I would prefer to act as if they did not exist.  No matter what revisionist history might try to argue.

Since the original movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas has not been shy about protecting his intellectual property rights.  It is practically a running joke that any reference to Star Wars will expose you to a lawsuit from Lucasfilm or Disney.  (The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm for $4,000,000,000 in October 2012 and immediately announced plans for a new set of Star Wars movies using the same characters and settings.)

To demonstrate just how sincere the creator of the Star Wars universe is about protecting his creation, his characters, the movies, the settings, the concepts and the ancillary names, brands and logos – the following is a summary of the notable issues relating to Star Wars intellectual property.

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