As star marks abound, are they too ordinary?

With billions of dollars at stake, celebrities’ lawyers have been beating down the door at a surprising government office in hopes of advancing clients’ economic interests by staking exclusivity claims on everything from dolls to dresses to perfumes. That gold rush-style boom, not in copyright requests but rather in mark applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office, (shown right) also keeps bumping against some hard realities that may make some female stars, especially, and their counsel rethink the supposed advantages of marks versus copyrights.

Although conventional wisdom among barristers may hold that marks may be the better way to build a brand because they permit legal protections for phrases that aren’t exactly unique, it may be that some names, words, sayings, and coinages are just too common or close to material that Uncle Sam already has allowed to be stamped with the signature TM.

This legal speed bump may be especially timely and pertinent for Entertainment Law practitioners to ponder in the wake of the recent decision by a federal court in Manhattan, asking if the intellectual property rights of screen legend Marilyn Monroe, for her estate, may be too generic for protection. Other celebs also have hit some TM woes worth noting.    (more…)

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‘Oh, Really?’ Yes, ‘Vinny’ still a hit after 25 years

In our ‘Oh, Really’  feature, the Biederman Blog’s editors and alumni— voracious consumers of trendy matters — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular culture and its entertaining products, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.

How’d that happen? Has it really been 25 years since a low-budget, gentle comedy about two New York youts—Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) and how they get into deep hot water in Dixie, only to be rescued by a Brooklyn wise guy—sneaked into theaters nationwide, became a hit, then a cult classic?

My Cousin Vinnyexperts note, not only has charmed audiences for awhile now. It also has earned a special spot in many lawyers’ hearts and minds because of its attention to telling truths. Its director holds a Cambridge law degree. It has been deemed by a respected legal publication as one of the 25 greatest legal movies, and it has been written up in legal textbooks and online sites.

The eminent jurist Richard Posner has written that the film is “particularly rich in practice tips: how a criminal defense lawyer must stand his ground against a hostile judge, even at the cost of exasperating the judge, because the lawyer’s primary audience is the jury, not the judge; how cross-examination on peripheral matters can sow serious doubts about a witness’s credibility; how props can be used effectively in cross-examination (the tape measure that demolishes one of the prosecution’s eyewitnesses); how to voir dire, examine, and cross-examine expert witnesses; the importance of the Brady doctrine … how to dress for a trial; contrasting methods of conducting a jury trial; and more.

Vinny has a notable fan at Southwestern Law School, too: Prof. Norman M. Garland (right), an expert on constitutional criminal procedure and evidence. Garland, who has served as the Irwin R. Buchalter Professor of Law and the Paul E. Treusch Professor of Law, offered a few observations about the film and its long and high-standing among legal practitioners: (more…)

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Calif. tosses angry actor’s talent-act claim

Star’s manager prevails in beef over commissions, representation

Thomas Gibson‘s acting career, launched at age 10, has taken him through Julliard, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood, where he starred in the CBS TV hit Criminal Minds for a dozen years. But the unsmiling 55-year-old has seen a highly lucrative career take a rough turn recently, including his 2013 arrested for a DUI (for which he lost use of his license) and his highly publicized tussles and firing in late 2016 from the crime procedural show that had made him one of the industry’s top-paid performers.

While he battles to restore his reputation, actions by Gibson, his longtime manager, and a recent ruling by the California Labor Commission won’t stop the negative turn. The state’s Talent Agencies Act isn’t always the easiest regulation for performers and their managers to navigate, as recent prosecutions have affirmed. But a state labor commissioner found clearly that problems Gibson may have encountered and complained about were on his side, not his manager’s. Let’s dig in to this critical but tempestuous situation. 

Photo: Cliff Lipson©CBS 

 

 

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‘Oh, really?’ Early awakening’s murderous?

Passengers posits that rousing a space crew member early from a suspended state is tantamount to murder. How on earth might that be true?

In our ‘Oh, Really’  feature, the Biederman Blog’s editors and alumni— voracious consumers of trendy matters — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular culture and its entertaining products, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.

In the movie Passengers,  travelers on a swanky spaceship must trek for 120 years to reach and colonize Homestead II, a planet in a distant galaxy. To survive their journey, they’re all put into a suspended state, to be awakened just months before reaching their destination. But when the ship veers through an asteroid belt, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) accidentally awakens only 30 years into the trip. He grows depressed and isolated, confronting his  certain death in the 90 years before he reaches his planned new home.

Then, he notices Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her suspension pod. He falls for her. He struggles with his choice but wakes her, also nine decades too soon. When conscious, she is devastated that she will die before anyone else aboard besides Jim awakens, especially because she planned to stay only briefly on Homestead II before returning to Earth to write a book about her experiences.

Jim leads her to believe her rousing to consciousness was an accident. They grow close. Then an android, the bartender at one of the couple’s favorite spots on the ship, spills the beans to Aurora: Her amorous interest intentionally woke the sleeping beauty.

When another crew member Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer, is accidentally awakened, Aurora fights with Jim. She insists to Gus that Jim has murdered her. Did he?  This flick raises an ethical or moral dilemma. But, really, murder? What might be legal considerations for such a claim, other than an angry lover’s recriminations about how a partner may have affected her longevity?

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Is an icon’s image too generic to trademark?

Bitter battle by Marilyn Monroe estate to protect her legacy may have unforeseen consequences for celebrities

It’s common these days for celebrities to trademark their names and properties attached to them (yes, you Beyonce, and all of you in the Kardashian clan). Her estate has tried to create comparable legal protections for Norma Jean Mortenson, the sliver-screen legend better known as Marilyn Monroe.

But a U.S. District Court in Manhattan has cast a long shadow over the movie star’s intellectual property rights, raising the possibility—not just for her and her estate but for other pop culture icons —that a megastar like Monroe may be too generic for protection.

The issue is far from decided, and, in a 51-page opinion and order, U.S. District Judge Katherine Folk Pailla has observed that, “What began in 2012 as a declaratory judgment action has transmogrified into a sprawling conflict raising issues of trademark, antitrust, and state business law.”  So, as Marilyn herself might aver: Sugar, what’s behind this Monkey Business that could Shock Miss Pilgrim, in which Something’s Gotta Give, some parties don’t seem to be Gentlemen [who] Prefer Blondes, and, the court hopes, won’t turn into a Seven Year Itch?

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New chair zaps FCC changes on set-top boxes

Out with the old, in with the new: Ajit Pai, President Trump’s new chair of the Federal Communications Commission, has reversed course,  revoking reports and investigations launched under previous leaders. Pai has criticized his predecessors’ “midnight regulations,” saying there were issued with little notice and discussion. But critics were quick to point out his revocations occurred in much the same way. 

Ignoring the politics, some of what Pai swept away will affect entertainment content, specifically access issues involving set-top boxes that consumers must rent—at much-criticized costs of hundreds of dollars annually—to get cable and satellite programs. The Obama Administration had wanted third-parties to provide the units, lowering their price and potentially opening more robust content options, such as through apps and streaming services.

Consumers, especially millennials, have been revolting against this technology, cutting the cord on the hefty costs of cable and satellite service. “Over-the-top content” from Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and others—as well as new technologies to deliver it—have made this possible. But the hope that consumers soon might be liberated from renting set-top boxes has been put off for who knows how long.

Streaming content sources typically have not included live sports, nor were network television shows available on streaming devices. But now, a content shift is under way. And the options, made available directly to streamers, especially through proprietary apps and subscription online services, are solid, including new shows and movies (please see HBO’s Game of Thrones  or its Westworld if you have been living under a rock).

What does this mean for the entertainment industry? As more content moves toward streaming and away from old-line cable and satellite providers, entertainment lawyers may need to be cutting new media deals for clients to adjust. As older content gets re-purposed for stand-alone channels, many licensors are confronting contracts that fail to address major technological changes. And what about advertisers? How will they approach their deals when “over the top” content lacks ads or permits consumers to fast-forward past them?

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Infringement makes federal court Krabby

Cartoon eatery wins mark protection

With its corps of intellectual property lawyers, Viacom, the entertainment giant, somehow didn’t legally shield the Krusty Krab— and some interlopers soon had plans to have their way with it.

Unfamiliar with this famed eatery, and maybe not savvy about the Sponge Bob Squarepants universe, too? Well, the Krusty Krab is the fictional, featured workplace of SpongeBob and the ever acerbic Squidward. Their famous joint also has its own legendary burger: the Krabby Patty.

Both were in danger, in Viacom’s view, of falling into the nefarious mitts of IJR Capital Investments, an LLC that proposed to open a Krusty Krab restaurant and to trademark that name.

As Mr. Bill, another notable fictional character, would exclaim: Oh, no!

Fear not sea sponges. Viacom pulled up its legal big boy pants and fought back – winning its case recently with a reminder from a federal court in Houston about critical components of IP and trademark law. Hint: Use in the market matters.

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