Comic book movies are big business. It was not always this way. Even if it seems that all Hollywood movies today are merely adaptations of comic book characters. Superman and Batman were always popular characters and were the focus of relatively successful movies. This includes the Christopher Reeve Superman movies through the launch of Tim Burton’s Batman franchise in 1989. But the recent trend of superhero dominance at the box office essentially began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000.
X-Men languished in development for years, but then surprised with a massive box office haul that summer – and made a star out of Hugh Jackman in the process. It also adopted the tone of the comic books and made it safe to adapt the concepts as a movie. The success of X-Men begat the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise, which begat the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, and suddenly Warner/DC Comics’ and Marvel’s collective catalog of characters became hot property. Not all characters have been treated equally, however. Batman, for example, will always be seen as a safer bet than, say, Ghost Rider. Movies are budgeted accordingly.
Today, the average Hollywood movie budget exceeds $100 million. This includes salaries for the cast and crew, CGI costs, and in many cases… licensing rights. Yes, your favorite comic book characters are subject to both copyright and trademark protections. Like I said, it is big business.
How do these licensing and intellectual property issues affect the production of a movie for a minor character like, say, Deadpool? Let the games begin!
Copyrights are seemingly everywhere. From music to movies to television to paintings and sculptures. Copyright issues are also ever-present when it comes to internet content, books and scholastic articles. Most anything that is an original expression that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression can be covered by the scope of 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (the U.S. Copyright Act).
The hurdle for copyright qualification is low, though there are exceptions, and certain things are never subject to copyright protection. For example, government works are not copyrighted pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 105. Additionally, you cannot copyright simple words or phrases – as this is instead the subject of trademark law. We have also previously discussed (in the context of Halloween costumes) the fact that you cannot acquire a copyright on what is considered a “useful article” or that which is “an object having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information” as defined by 17 U.S.C. § 101.
Which brings us to the topic du jour: what about sex toys? Are sex toys “useful articles” that are not subject to copyright protection?
Generic trademarks are no joke. Earlier this week, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the trademark BOOKING.COM was generic for travel agency and hotel reservation services. Legally speaking, if a mark is generic, it no longer serves the purpose of a trademark and cannot be protected or enforced against third party uses. According to the TTAB’s ruling, booking.com operates to essentially identify the product itself and does not operate as a source-identifier to customers. Therefore no one is entitled to exclusive use of this term in commerce.
This news triggered a few things in my mind. Recently, a friend of mine and I had lunch at a nice restaurant in the Houston area. This restaurant offered a particular dessert offering – a dressed-up, fancy Oreo cookie. Now, being a trademark nerd, I noticed the lack of any trademark designation on the menu listing. No ™. No ®. And no disclaimer in the fine print suggesting that “Oreo” is a trademark owned by someone else and licensed to this restaurant. Nothing of the sort. My friend and I joked about this for a while until it occurred to me that I may have stumbled upon something interesting:
Has OREO become a generic term that no longer functions as a trademark?
Donald Trump is an expert level troll. He is in the midst of the most unconventional Presidential campaign of the Internet era. Political scientists still cannot categorize or describe him as a candidate. Meanwhile, Trump continues to hoard the media’s attention for everything he does. Most recently, Trump gained attention when visitors to JebBush.com were instead being re-directed to Trump’s own campaign website.
It seems that as early as December 8, 2015, someone purchased the domain for JebBush.com and, to the chagrin of the Bush campaign, sent visitors and Bush supporters to his rival’s official website – www.donaldjtrump.com. For the record, JebBush.com is not the official website of the Bush campaign. Additionally, Trump and his campaign team deny any direct involvement in the prank, though the current owner of the JebBush.com domain is remaining silent for now.
Just for fun, however, let us assume that Donald Trump is responsible for the domain name purchase and the re-direct to his own campaign site. Is this legal? Does this make Trump a no-good cybersquatter and trademark infringer? Let’s explore!
On Sunday, February 7, 2016, the Carolina Panthers® and Denver Broncos® will take the field for the kickoff of Super Bowl® 50. This is the annual showcase game for the National Football League®. In the interim time, the NFL® has assembled an army of lawyers that are ready, willing and able to send a bevy of cease-and-desist letters to any individual or entity that has the audacity to use certain terms or phrases that the league perceives might dilute or infringe famous trademarks that belong to the NFL.
The Super Bowl is practically an American institution, now in its fiftieth year. Many groups contend that the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. In fact, a formal petition was once initiated for that very purpose. As a result, you will see and hear numerous advertisements leading up to the Super Bowl promoting numerous goods and services. It is kind of a big deal. What you are unlikely to hear in these advertisements, however, is quite noteworthy. You will rarely hear any advertisement use the term SUPER BOWL.
Why are we reduced to using nebulous terms like “The Big Game” or “The Pro Football Championship” to identify and describe a game? Why is the NFL so trigger-happy in seeking to stop all uses of “Super Bowl” that are not made by direct sponsors of the league or the television broadcast? What is the legal basis for the NFL’s position on this matter? Is it possible that the NFL is wrong? (Spoiler alert: YES!)
In what seems to be a rite of passage for up-and-coming comedians, Golden Globe® nominee Amy Schumer was recently accused of “joke theft” by a series of fellow comedians. All puns aside, “joke theft” can be a serious matter and allegations of the same have negatively affected the careers of many comedians, including Denis Leary, Carlos Mencia, and Dane Cook. While few jokes are truly original anymore, the blatant lifting of an entire comedic performance from another often subjects the alleged thief to public shaming. In the case of a comedian with the status of Amy Schumer, that shaming can be high-profile. Many have already taken to YouTube to create comparison videos.
But is joke theft a stand-alone basis for a legal claim of copyright infringement?
Yes, yes it can be. Please allow me to explain…
On January 12, 2016, the National Football League approved by near unanimous vote the re-location of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has not been home to an NFL team since the Rams and the Raiders both left after the 1994 season. In addition to the Rams, the San Diego Chargers also have the option to move to Los Angeles before the 2017 season, which seems likely. The Los Angeles Rams are back in business. NFL Hall of Fame running back (and fellow SMU Mustang!) Eric Dickerson seems pleased with the news:
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Rams Football Company, by way of the St. Louis Rams LLC, has already taken steps to ensure that the LOS ANGELES RAMS trademark rights are active and the federal registration has been renewed. But there remain other trademark issues that arise from this news of relocation.
Two trademark applications have recently caught my attention. Both involve NFL players and their offhand comments that have become accidental catchphrases. I highlight these two as a means of underscoring the recent trend among athletes to seek to register trademarks of all kinds. Most of these marks, unfortunately, have limited commercial value and a short lifespan for relevance among the consuming public. While I am a champion for protecting your trademark rights, these two particular applications strike me as nothing short of absurd.
Please allow me to explain…
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.