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,
Trump is unlikely to have acquired permission to use this
clip from Disney,
including any right to create or share derivative works, 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.
June 5, 2017
Marshall, Texas is a town of less than 25,000 residents in East Texas. It is closer to Shreveport, Louisiana than it is to Dallas or to Houston. Nevertheless, since the late 1990s, Marshall has become the epicenter for a series of high-profile patent litigation cases. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 patent infringement cases filed in the United States. At least 1,500 of these filings ended up before Judge Rodney Gilstrap, a judge for the Eastern District of Texas, in the Marshall, Texas division. This was no accident.
As of last month, however, this may all be subject to change.
On May 22, 2017, in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, the United States Supreme Court addressed a dispute regarding the patent venue statute and unanimously held that civil actions for patent infringement may only be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business. Prior to TC Heartland, patent owners could choose to file suit in most any state given that most corporations made or sold products nationwide. This allowed certain courts to set up shop as patent “rocket dockets” which encouraged litigators to choose their venue.
This is how one judge in Marshall, Texas came to oversee, on average, nearly a quarter of all patent infringement cases filed in the United States. Now that TC Heartland is the rule of the land, there are three primary issues to address and explore: (1) how did Marshall, Texas become a “rocket docket” for patent cases?; (2) what rule did the Supreme Court actually change?; and (3) what is likely to happen now?
September 30, 2016
On September 29, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the matter of Lee v. Tam, regarding whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act is facially invalid under the First Amendment, particularly whether it restricts free speech. This is the appeal from the same case I wrote about last December. I am curious to see how the Supreme Court tackles this issue, and what I consider substantive errors in analysis made by the Federal Circuit last fall.
Nevertheless, while the legal issues are heavily nuanced and regard convoluted topics such as “chilling effects,” “government speech” versus “commercial speech,” “disparagement,” and what constitutes “use in commerce,” it appears the layperson is confused by the scope of the case. Particularly, after the news broke yesterday, the common theme was “why is a musical group not allowed to call itself the Slants?” – which is not only wholly irrelevant to the issue but is also a dangerous interpretation of what I consider to be an important trademark matter.
In short, you can name your rock band whatever you want. You can also name your professional football team whatever you want (looking at you, Washington Redskins). No one is going to stop you. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, however, may refuse to grant you a trademark registration for such a name. Not that the name cannot be a trademark – it can be – but “registration” confers additional benefits that may or may not extend to marks that the USPTO considers to be “disparaging” of people or groups. This is the entirety of what the Supreme Court is going to address.
Instead, here I will try to address the distinction between free speech, trademarks, and trademark registrations in general terms.