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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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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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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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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‘Marshall Tucker’ rockers lose battle for mark


The southern rockers in The Marshall Tucker Band may be singing the blues. That’s because the musicians in the legendary, long-running, and oft-reconstituted band had their trademark lawsuit against their publishing company dismissed recently.

The band had filed various trademark claims against MT Industries (MTI) over “The Marshall Tucker Band” mark. But on March 1, a U.S. District Court in South Carolina granted a motion to dismiss the band’s claims of infringement and dilution against the company.

Band members had also initiated a claim of copyright cancellation, as well as other state law claims. MTI argued that the entire action should be dismissed, and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the court’s lacked subject matter jurisdiction. How did this long hard ride end? (more…)

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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.

(more…)

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Podcasts? Here are 3 on entertainment law

If you’re looking for a way to stay up to date in easy, convenient fashion with key developments in entertainment and media law, why not try a novel, different technology: Podcasts, which hit big in the early 2000s then seemed to fade a decade or so later, have reemerged to become all the rage again. We’re talking Serial, This American Life, Fresh Air, and the many offerings available through National Public Radio and Apple.

There also are at least a trio of Entertainment Law podcasts worth considering for some reasons described below: It’s a subjective call, and there may be options to add.

But in the upcoming downtime connected to the holidays, it may be worth devoting some moments to: the Entertainment Law Update Podcast, Laws of Entertainment with Lisa Bonner, and the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media, and Entertainment Law Journal Podcast. Here’s why, for those with long commutes or the need for informative diversion, to listen up! (more…)

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Will studio win after a decade, 3 court rulings?

Wizard of OZThe solemn, esteemed appellate courts don’t get to tell parties to just buzz off, of course. But after a decade of litigation, will some movie memorabilia product-makers finally give up their campaign to tap images from some of Warner Brothers’ most iconic films and characters?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in a second adverse decision, has affirmed lower court rulings against plaintiffs Art and Vintage Entertainment Licensing Agency (AVELA), Dave Grossman Creations, X One X Productions and Leo Valencia. Instead, the court has given the studio yet another legal victory. Specifically, the appellate judges said AVELA et al can’t raise new arguments now and they owe Warner Brothers $2.57 million for copyright infringement.

The appellate judges upheld a permanent injunction in favor of Warner against the plaintiffs, a court order issued as part of a lawsuit launched in 2006, in which the studio accused AVELA et al of acquiring restored versions of movie posters and lobby cards for its films and extracting from publicity materials images of legendary characters like Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, and Tom and Jerry from the eponymous cartoon show. Warner complained the images violated its intellectual property when they were used on products like T-shirts, lunch boxes, playing cards, and action figures. (more…)

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How offensive will high court allow marks to be?

The SlantsFour white men, two white women, a Latina, and an African-American soon will decide how blunt, vulgar, and racist trademarks in the United States may be. This esteemed, older, and not necessarily greatly diverse group will consider whether Asian American musicians may “re-appropriate” Slants, a traditional slur against their ethnic group, and obtain formal, legal exclusivity and commercial protections for that term.

But Redskins, another racial term deemed offensive and derogatory, especially to Native Americans, another minority group in this country, will not be part of the deliberations for now by, of course, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Their impetus for examining the issue of “scandalous, immoral, and disparaging,” trademarks — a topic this blog has taken up before — resulted from an appeal by no less than Uncle Sam, who said the important issue had gotten unclear and messy for the multicultural nation. Here’s why: (more…)

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Judge maps out where a mark won’t hold

Mention the appellation Westsiders to those who know well the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world, and heads nod in knowing acknowledgement: Yes, those who reside in Los Angeles, west of La Cienega Boulevard, are, indeed, a peculiar people. Similarly, the Pet Shop Boys, an English pop duo, scored a 2000 hit by describing the affinities of London’s distinctive “West End girls and Eastern boys.”

But when it comes to residents of a slice of Manhattan, denizens of the Lower East Side or Loisaidas, is that a sort of generic geographical descriptor en Espanol, or is it a name of a group of people, say, a band, that can be trademark protected by a “urban bachata” duo hailing from the neighborhood? And, more key, if a film mentions Loisaidas repeatedly, including in its title, is that a trademark infringement?

No, a federal judge in New York decided recently,  dismissing a lawsuit against Kanye West, Damon Dash, and various corporate entities associated with Dash. The court found that Loisaidas, the film series by West and Dash, has artistic relevance and is protected by the First Amendment. (more…)

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