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. 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?
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.
It has long been a running joke that if you only know how to play the G, C and D chords on a guitar, then you already know how to play hundreds of different popular songs. Many musical acts have been ridiculed for only playing the same three chords over and over. “Three-chord” rock music is practically its own genre. The I-IV-V major key chord progression is even considered the “standard” blues progression. Within that construct, there are only 12 basic “notes” or tones in the musical spectrum: A, Bb, B, C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, and G#. From there it is just a matter of octaves to achieve different ranges of an “A” note. In short, there is a finite amount of discrete notes along with a relatively limited amount of chord progressions that are available to a songwriter.
Copyright law, meanwhile, only protects “original works of authorship” in musical works and sound recordings. It is right there in the statute: the song or sound recording must be original. Without the element of originality, there is nothing protectable under the law.
Knowing this, and with hundreds of years of the history of songwriting, are there any songs that are truly “original” anymore? Is there any progression or riff that is so unique as to stand apart from every song that has been previously written? If not, how are musical works still subject to claims of copyright infringement and why should we care?
Can musicians and artists legally demand that politicians not use their works?
Recently, the Rolling Stones sent a notice to Donald Trump demanding that he cease using their songs at his campaign events across the country. This is not the first time an artist has objected to a politician using certain songs or related works in conjunction with a political campaign. It is practically a rite of passage for a high-profile politician to anger a musician with a particular choice of campaign theme song. This is an American trend that dates back at least to the early 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen upbraided President Ronald Reagan for using “Born in the U.S.A.” as part of his re-election efforts.
Of course, the Rolling Stones are not an American band. Plus, by now we all know that Donald Trump is not exactly the type of person to back down to what may be a toothless demand. Trump might all too willing to cite 250 years of American history by telling the Rolling Stones to take their demand and shove it. He thrives on this type of attention after all. But that is not the question. The real question is this:
Can Donald Trump (or most any politician) use any song they want for a campaign without obtaining the musician’s permission?
Lady Gaga is an American recording artist. 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. As of 2016, she has sold over 27 million albums worldwide. She also owns registrations for her “Lady Gaga” stage name. I feel confident in stating that Lady Gaga is famous.
Yet in an opinion dated March 30, 2016, 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…” 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?
On May 31, 2014, the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against James Patrick Page, Robert Anthony Plant, and John Paul Jones, among others. The primary cause of action is copyright infringement. There does not appear to be anything special about such a lawsuit until you realize that the Defendants are famous musicians that performed under the name “Led Zeppelin” and the “among others” includes Warner Music Group. The alleged basis for copyright infringement? Stairway to Heaven. Yes, the 1971 song that continues to be a staple at every middle school dance. Suddenly this lawsuit seems like kind of a big deal.
How is such an iconic song subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit 45 years after its initial release? How was this suit not dismissed as frivolous right away? Does the judge not know about this little thing called a ‘statute of limitations’? This all seems highly unfair, right?
Well, a jury gets to decide all of these issues as early as next month. On April 8, 2016, the district court judge denied the relevant parts of Led Zeppelin’s Motion for Summary Judgment and the lawsuit is set to proceed to trial. In the meantime, a quick overview of this case and how 1970s copyright laws are still relevant today.
Did you know that The Coca-Cola Company applied to register a federal trademark for the term “COCA-COLA ZERO”? It is true. Coca-Cola filed the application with the USPTO on March 4, 2005. The application was published for opposition on April 17, 2007. Not surprisingly, the companies that own Dr. Pepper and 7-Up immediately opposed this registration. The battle has been ongoing for over eight years now.
Without going into too much detail, an executive for Coca-Cola testified recently that there are twelve Coke products that use the term ZERO in the product name. This includes Coke Zero, Cherry Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke Zero and others. This is consistent with Coca-Cola’s trademark application, which identified the relevant goods and services as “Beverages, namely soft drinks; syrups and concentrates for the making of the same.” Nevertheless, the “ZERO” part of the mark almost certainly refers to the marketing of these specific products as having “zero calories” per serving size (i.e., one can or bottle). This presents a series of interesting trademark concepts.