‘Panda’ suit hits grizzly end for artist-fraudster

Jayme Gordon, an artist who claimed he was the creator of the smash cartoon character Kung Fu Panda and whose lawsuit against the DreamWorks studio had made a rare advance toward trial, has gotten an unusual legal comeuppance.

The courts have booted his litigation. And prosecutors have kicked Gordon into the can, with a judge recently sentencing him to two years in prison for fraud.  

Did Grand Master Oogway and Master Shifu magically materialize out of the movie and into real life to reverse the fortunes of Gordon, who actually had gotten the wealthy and powerful Jeffrey Katzenberg in a deposition? What mysteries did criminal sleuths unwind?

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Lionsgate hit with a $5.8 million ‘Biggest Loser’

Arbitrator rules studio undercut profit potential of fitness guru Jillian Michaels’ recorded workouts with free YouTube postings

Fitness guru Jillian Michaels has found a legal workout that may make skinnier the wallets of Lionsgate Films Group while also putting more muscle behind performers’ options to protect their works from popping up for free on YouTube.

Entertainment law experts are watching closely Michaels’ recent favorable decision from an arbitrator, awarding her $5.8 million in her dispute with the studio over fitness videos tied to the hit TV weight-loss show Biggest Loser.

What led her to get so exercised about how Lionsgate treated her workouts, and how might this tighten up some commercial online video practices?

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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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Shooter’s infringement claim fails to develop

Art student, school find fair-use shield for photo used in class assignment and posted on Flickr

Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst. These artists, and many others, have famously exploited existing images in their own works. While such “appropriation” operates in a gray area of copyright law, iconoclastic pop-artists remain undeterred.  And as aspirants follow their role models, it’s unsurprising that challenges arise—notably and recently in an an art class at the Watkins Institute.

Students at the Nashville school were given photos and asked to create a mock product ad. So, très, Warhol, right, and are legal eagles already seeing the court case brewing?

Fortunately for the school and the student, both of whom ended up as defendants in the recently decided copyright infringement case Reiner v. Nishimori, some sorta ivy tower defenses came to their rescue. Let’s focus on academic fair use and its role in this visual controversy, shall we?

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‘Blurred Lines’ and a + path for ‘Photograph’

A costly infringement case may be pushing songwriters to consider legal options, adding credits and sharing royalties rather than litigating. Is it stifling creativity, too?

Have legal concerns grown so Thicke that songwriters find it’s easier now to just get Happy and + colleagues who seek credit because their works sound sort of similar?

Ed Sheeran—the singer, songwriter, actor, guitarist, and record producer—may have sent the music industry a strong message with his recent settlement of a copyright infringement suit over his hit song Photograph. In answer to 2016 claims by songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard that they should be awarded $20 million from him because they say his song infringed on their composition Amazing (as recorded by Matt Cardle, the 2010 winner of The X Factor reality series), Sheeran, legendary for his mathematically signed albums, effectively replied: —  .

He then apparently decided not to be ÷, and to just × the number of folks credited on his tune.

What’s going on—and was this part of a potentially −legal trend? Let’s get to the √ of this music industry development. (more…)

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Q-&-A: Prof. Kane on fashion and copyright

With the U.S. Supreme Court recently deciding in the Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands case that graphic elements on cheerleading uniforms can be protected under Section 101 of the Copyright Act, a conversation has emerged among designers and fashion experts, wondering how the ruling may impact the ever-growing industry. Hillary Kane, an adjunct associate professor of law at Southwestern Law School and Of Counsel at altView Law Group LLP,  discusses the concerns of many about this case and its connection to Entertainment Law in this Q-&-A:

Question—Based on your expert knowledge, which segments of the fashion industry do you believe will be most affected by this ruling? What are the positive and negative effects of the decision?

Answer—I am very resistant to lumping cheerleading uniforms into what most of us consider fashion. Fashion at its finest involves high levels of training, creativity, innovation, and passion. A cheerleading uniform? Not so much. It is very likely that the designs in questions will not be sufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection after they are “imaginatively separated” from the uniform using the new test.

The many attempts to expand copyright protection to fashion design have failed.  The Supreme Court was very careful to emphasize that its ruling was not extending copyright protection to clothing. Maybe we should just accept this and move on? All the Varsity ruling does is establish the test all courts should apply to determine if the design elements on a uniform are copyright worthy independent from the garment.

Next fall, I will be substituting Conceptual Separability with Imagined Separability and working through the new test in my Fashion Law course. I am not sure the result in this case would be different applying another one of the prior nine to 12 tests, now superseded.

The fashion industry segment most likely to be affected is cheerleading uniforms, and perhaps other types of uniforms.  Now, instead, of being well-settled that there is no copyright protection for any uniform elements, companies have a new basis on which to sue each other. It may get incredibly complicated. What happens when a university claims it has trademark rights in a design Varsity tries to copyright? (There is a U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals trademark case that speaks to this: Louisiana State University v. Smack Apparel Co.)

It is great material for a law school exam, but not likely to lead to anything other than lawsuits in real life. (more…)

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Appellate court rejects cable license for FilmOn

In its long-running bid to transform broadcasting, controversial firm fails to persuade judges to extend protections granted to cable companies. TV networks complained high-tech company’s through-air, content “capture,” and re-transmissions constitute infringement.

FilmOn boasts that it provides its customers through its website with an impressive access to “600 free live TV Channels” as well as “45,000 complimentary movies.” While Internet streaming services like Hulu and Netflix often say they have been forced to raise their prices to cover expensive content-licensing fees how, then, can FilmOn offer online such a wide, no-cost offering of copyright protected entertainment?

The answer—or so FilmOn thought, at least—rests in Section 111 of the Copyright Act. It allows bona fide cable systems to secure licenses that permit them to re-transmit a “performance or display of a work” previously broadcast by others—but without securing consent of the material’s copyright holder. Cable systems are protected against infringement claims, provided they pay fees to the U.S. Copyright Office, as spelled out by statute.

For FilmOn, which has become something of a broadcast copyright bad boy, Section 111 was a key legal step to advance the company’s controversial ambitions to transform broadcasting. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has pulled the plug on yet another aspect of its complex, continuing technology-based arguments in its battle with competitors and the TV networks. The appellate judges in Pasadena, Calif., recently ruled in favor of Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS and other broadcasters, finding that FilmOn can’t qualify as a cable system and thereby can’t obtain federal licenses allowing it to re-transmit copyrighted material from the networks.

Are we near the end of the long-running battle over what happens with free signals pulled from the air by thousands of tiny antennas at a central site, then sent onward? Hasn’t the highest court in the lands settled the contentious “Aereo” argument? (more…)

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Behind a fun festival season, legal lines in sand

For Coachella and other lucrative live music events, there’s no fiddling around in enforcing protections for brands, merchandise

Summer’s quickly approaching, and that means the music festival season soon will be rocking and rolling in its full glory. But there’s more than meets the eye in staging successful—read that highly lucrative—events, besides getting throngs out in Mother Nature’s splendor for a splendid series of hot performances by top artists of the moment.

For Entertainment Law counsel, protecting a festival’s name, brand, intellectual property, and associated merchandise can require a lot of non-musical movements, year-round overtures in copyright and trademark enforcement. They’re playing a big score, with events and goods representing a sizable part of pop music’s revenues these days.

That’s the prelude for this post, now on to seeing some of how it’s done, with a sampling of the legal fugues performed by a major player, the Coachella Music Festival LLC:

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YouTube’s service terms just can’t be ignored

Federal judge tosses suit over music video that was pulled down, then re-posted, and had its view count reset

Performers who leap on to YouTube may be visually savvy, marketing smart, and outstanding early adopters of cutting-edge social media platforms. But besides promoting themselves zealously in cyber space with online services, they also need to step up and master an old legal fundamental: It pays to read the fine print before consenting to any agreement in ink and paper or electrons, as a federal judge in San Francisco has reminded an unhappy plaintiff.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of YouTube users likely would fail a quiz on the service provider’s terms of service (TOS) agreement before assenting to it. But if the too blithely check off a box on an online page and move ahead with understanding their legal situation, they then also can’t gripe to courts and seek relief when YouTube removes, relocates, and resets the view count of their posted music videos. That was the beef in Darnaa, LLC v. Google Inc.

Plaintiff Darnaa was a limited liability company, an independent music label promoting and producing the works of artist Darnaa. The LLC in March, 2014, uploaded to YouTube the artist’s music video Cowgirl as part of an advertising campaign to promote sales of the song recordings in online digital music stores. But, yippee-ki-yay, YouTube made that ditty mosey where Darnaa didn’t expect on the great cyber free range. Why didn’t the judge corral YouTube, the online video giant? (more…)

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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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