… and your own concert
video recordings on YouTube could be infringing, too
Prince has been gone for nearly four years. But his presence
still looms large over copyright law. Even in death, Prince’s estate continues
to keep a watchful eye over potential infringers of his musical works. The
latest dispute is a potentially haunting restriction of a popular feature on
YouTube: people posting video clips of live performances. On January 6, 2020,
the federal district court in Massachusetts determined
that Prince’s estate has the sole right to distribute video clips of his live performances
and that uploading certain song clips to a YouTube channel may even constitute
This case presents a multitude of legal issues to assess. Additionally,
this ruling leaves a potential to a technology-based philosophical conundrum for
future copyright cases as they intersect with YouTube style sites. I have a
YouTube channel. On this channel I have posted covers of songs that I play on
guitar. My videos are nothing fancy, but this recent case and others like it
have determined that these videos can actually be infringing works. This
article will try to address these legal landmines while exploring any
possibility for copyright law as it exists today to be reconciled with how
these personal camera-phone videos are treated by the law.
In May 2019, Gibson Brands,
Inc. sued Armadillo Distribution Enterprises, Inc. for trademark
infringement, unfair competition, and counterfeiting.
Armadillo may not be a well known name, but it is affiliated with the guitar
brands Dean Guitars and Luna Guitars, which compete with Gibson.
Gibson is one of the most prominent names in the electric guitar industry,
alongside Fender. In this lawsuit, Gibson accuses Armadillo/Dean of infringing
at least four “body shapes” of its electric guitar models: the Flying V, the
Explorer, the ES, and the SG, each of which Gibson cites as a registered
This case caught my attention because I am a guitar player
and I often write about music and the music industry as it relates to
trademarks and copyrights. Here
I do not personally own any Gibson-branded guitars (they are too heavy in the
neck), but I do own one acoustic Dean Guitar – though not one of the types that
is accused of infringement in this case. With regard to electric guitars, I
prefer Schecter Guitars. Always a
Armadillo has not yet responded with an Answer to this
lawsuit, but I anticipate Dean Guitars will present a substantial defense to
all of Gibson’s claims. It is important to note that this is not a patent case.
This is not about who “invented” the particular shape or style of an electric
guitar. Any patent rights for these designs would have expired decades ago.
Instead, this dispute concerns trademarks. It essentially seeks to determine
whether a particular shape of a guitar evokes a specific source in the minds of
the relevant consuming public. With regard to the guitar industry, there is a long
history associated with these particular “body shapes” and how they impact pop
culture and the competition between the most popular brands and manufacturers.
Copyright law is an interesting subsection of the legal
field. Fun fact: the Founding Fathers cared more about protecting copyrights
than any nebulous free speech rights. The right to copyright is established in
the original U.S. Constitution
enacted in September 1787. The Bill of Rights did not exist until 1789.
Additionally, one of the really cool quirks about copyrights
is how they are created. Copyright exists “the moment it is
created and fixed in a tangible form.” Alas, this cool quirk appears to
only be true in form, but not in substance. For the United States Supreme Court
recently ruled that before you can enforce a copyright, you must first go
through the complete administrative process of registering that copyright with the Copyright Office.
While the Court recognized that it is not an ideal situation, it effectively threw its hands up and said “the law is the law” without really addressing the downstream effects. I would now like to take the time to do what the Court would not, and address the direct effects of this new “registration is required” copyright world.
January 2, 2019
On Friday, December 28, 2018, Nirvana, LLC sued Marc Jacobs International, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nieman Marcus for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. The crux of the dispute is over a new line of clothing being introduced by Marc Jacobs dubbed “Bootleg Redux Grunge” that he intends to sell to the public at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus stores. In short, these “grunge” clothes are being marketed to a high-end socioeconomic demographic that is antithetical to everything Kurt Cobain and Nirvana stood for. Because of course they are.
The real dispute is over the appropriation of the iconic Nirvana “smiley face” logo and what Nirvana contends is a derivative, non-transformative use by Marc Jacobs. I will not go too in-depth on the specific claims other than to say: yes, this is an infringement and Marc Jacobs is most certainly trying to associate this clothing line with famous Nirvana trademarks and copyrighted works. It is shameless. Everyone involved should be embarrassed. Yes, including Nirvana’s own lawyers – for reasons I will address.
Of course, I am biased. Nirvana is my favorite musical group of all-time and hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time when I was 14 years old was nothing short of a life-changing experience. Like millions of others, I also own one of the famous “smiley face” t-shirts and other merchandise bearing that image. This is a blog about trademark and copyright law, meanwhile – so let us break down the claims made against Marc Jacobs.
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.
Americans buy millions of new guitars every year. 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?
On June 9, 2017, Gene Simmons – the bass player and lead tongue of the classic rock band KISS – filed an application to register a trademark. This by itself is not newsworthy. Gene Simmons has previously sought to register hundreds of words, slogans, and logos he has identified as his personal trademarks. What caught everyone’s attention this time was the subject matter: Gene Simmons asserts that the “devil horns” hand gesture is a trademark that he owns. Yes. A hand gesture. A gesture seen at every single live music event today.
Without belaboring the point, Gene Simmons is not going to acquire a registration for this alleged trademark. This hand gesture is not a trademark. Nor would it belong to Gene Simmons even if it were a trademark.
At the risk of giving too much attention to a frivolous application, here are a few reasons why this application is going to fail.
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?