‘Empire’ strikes back in City of Brotherly Love

U.S. judge in Philly becomes latest of several to reject claims about originality of hit TV series

Rome not only wasn’t built in a day, it also took centuries and legions of soldiers to defend its expanding glory. TV’s Empire, it turns out, is requiring its own formidable legal forces to fend off its attackers.

And Lee Daniels, the hit Fox series’ ceasar, may be singing Philadelphia Freedom after shaking off the latest assault with a federal district court in Pennsylvania dismissing a copyright infringement suit by former actor Clayton Prince Tanksley.

Tanksley lacked much brotherly affection for Empire, which he claimed copied his TV drama Cream. How did his suit, and several others, curdle, legally speaking? (more…)

Read More

Court sorts out rights tiff in a mod, mod world

U.S. judge denies summary judgment in video gaming dispute, in which he dissects unitary vs. collective works and their implications for copyright, infringement claims

With a cast of characters rivaling a Tolstoy novel, and almost as many iterations and spin-offs as Pride and Prejudice, a recent video game dispute involving modification or modding has come down to concepts that underlie a good old-fashioned night at the movies. These led U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco to deny summary judgment in a suit by video game maker uCool against distributor Valve for copyright infringement of its characters. (A tip of the hat to the Hollywood Reporter for posting the ruling).

What lessons can makers and distributors in the red hot 21st century video gaming industry draw from the practices of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Cecil B. DeMille? (more…)

Read More

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…)

Read More

Appeals court, at least, sees talent act clearly

U.S. Ninth Circuit judges reject managers’ attack on California law but disputes keep surfacing over representation, commissions

Saunter down the street in Des Moines or Poughkeepsie and ask the first passer-by about who engages in the “procuring” business and be glad not to get a punch in the nose for asking about something that sounds like it’s part of the world’s oldest profession. But at least in Hollywood, and for especially for those in the entertainment industry, this practice—part art and part commerce—is so common that it should be legally plain and it is clearly understood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has declared.

The judges in the appellate court for the stars have upheld the dismissal of a suit by the National Conference of Personal Managers, a group aggravated by still controversial state statute(s) that they argue keeps clients from showing them the money—the California talent agencies act. The appellate judges concurred with a lower court ruling rejecting the managers’ claims, and finding that the act does not violate due process, equal protection, or free speech of talent managers in the entertainment industry.

The law says that only state-licensed agents may procure work for clients—the legions in Los Angeles of actors, directors, writers, and, yes, wannabes. The problem with the half-century old talent sections of the state labor code is that they also bar non-agents, including managers, attorneys, and the unlicensed from obtaining work for clients. This can and has created ned in the Biz, sparking significant protests before. The personal managers’ complaint provides a timely reminder that the griping about the act not only isn’t going away, it provides a recurring reason to keep re-examining the historic but also changing representation of talent in the Golden State. (more…)

Read More

With tech-streamers’ rise, will law jobs change?

The industry headlines tell a persuasive tale. Netflix: The most feared force in Hollywood? Netflix: The monster that’s eating Hollywood. Netflix is killing it—big time—after pouring cash into original shows.

With cord-cutting becoming  ever more common and broadcast network ratings steadily declining, will Entertainment Lawyers start streaming from traditional industry workplaces in search of Elysian Fields with newer employers working in newer technologies?

It may be a question to ponder, even as the studios and Netflix head to court in a battle over claims the big and growing streaming service poached key entertainment executives

But for lawyers, in particular, there may be more cultural and workplace issues to consider before throwing caution to the wind, polishing up that CV, and seeking to get in the queue for new employment. Yes, Netflix the disrupter of the TV world, the company that’s changing how consumers digest content,  is hiring.

But the company has its own distincitive hiring practices and workplace environment, bringing a holistic, freethinking, Silicon Valley “start-up vibe” to the often provincial and openly combative, kill-or-be-killed culture of showbiz in Hollywood—and to the typically buttoned-up environment of legal departments in some of those entertainment companies.

What’s the brief on working for entertainment-tech hybrids, or at least one of the giants of the day in this area?

(more…)

Read More

Congress takes aim at nation’s copyright chief

Lawmakers advance measure to strip Librarian of Congress of power to appoint copyrights Register, giving authority, instead, to the president, with congressional assistance

Congress is sending a rebuke to the bureaucrats who run a system that’s critical to Entertainment Law: The House has passed and sent to the Senate a proposal to strip The Librarian of Congress of the power to appoint the Register of Copyrights, giving that authority, instead, to the president.

HR 1695, the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act,  has passed the House Judiciary Committee in a 27-1 bipartisan vote, and it has advanced out of the House in a 378-48 vote. It now rests with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Whether it goes beyond, it has become the legislative equivalent of baseball’s brush-back pitch, with lawmakers expressing some degree of displeasure with the nation’s copyright administrators—and creating a colloquy over how this potential change might affect innovators and creators.

How did this tussle blow up? (more…)

Read More

A writers’ strike averted, troubling trends persist

When Hollywood gets the sniffles, its lawyers can feel like they’re suffering a major bout of pneumonia. So there was good reason for the collective exhale by many in the industry in recent days as the Writer’s Guild of America—the union to which all working screenwriters are required to belong—reached a contract deal with the studios. A potentially punishing strike was avoided. Productions continue. The disputing parties didn’t get all each wanted.

But did the entertainment business just whistle past some current economic concerns  to kick down the path some big, longer-term issues? As audiences confront increasing programming choices and their entertainment habits transform, have writers (long a vulnerable party in the Hollywood system) served as a harbinger of how industry talent—whether scribes, directors, producers, actors, or lawyers—keeps struggling and may be losing ever more to the tides of technology? (more…)

Read More

‘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…)

Read More

Oh, no, you don’t: Infringement claims revived

Appellate judges say trial, facts needed to determine if web service’s claim for ‘safe harbor’ undone by ‘volunteers’ moderating celebrity content

Celebrity content has sprouted online on gossipy sites like spring wildflowers after California’s heavy winter rains. But will the courts douse the untrammeled enthusiasms for these enterprises by finding that businesses that host and support such web venues may have limits to “safe harbors” they might seek from infringement claims in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has fired a warning shot to online service providers about the limits of their legal protections, particularly when people connected with them play roles in moderating stories or pictures about famous folks of the moment.

In a closely watched case, the appellate judges gave new life to infringement claims by Marvix Photographs, a company specializing in celebrity gossip (i.e., paparazzi) images, and potentially other content creators. This ruling raised big questions about the content practices of online platforms, notably LiveJournal, Marvix’s defendant and a blog-hosting powerhouse. The case also wraps in elements like editorial judgement and revelations about a diva’s pregnancy. What’s the hot legal scoop here?

(more…)

Read More

‘Ironman’ infringment claims stripped down

 

Court tosses lawsuit over suit but keeps alive tiff over movie poster

When a super hero upgraded from spandex and metal to hard-core gear, that spawned a lawsuit over a suit. But almost two years after Horizon Comics Productions, Inc. (“Horizon”) sued Marvel Entertainment, LLC (“Marvel”) for copyright infringement, a federal judge has unzipped the claim that one of the planet’s leading character-based entertainment companies stole the body armor design for Iron Man from two comic book artists.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Paul Oetken scrapped most of the suit by Horizon and onetime Marvel artists Ben and Ray Lai, finding iron-clad dissimilarities between Ironman’s ever-evolving garb in a $318 million-dollar movie and the attire of  the protagonists in a 2001 comic book series “Radix.”

But the judge also left a glimmer of possibility for the Lais and Horizon, allowing their claims to go forward that the Iron Man movie poster may have infringed on their intellectual property. How did this suit clang its way into court for so long? (more…)

Read More