Tag Archives: copyright

What the %@#&? Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on Immoral or Scandalous Trademarks

istock-136562318-trademark.jpg

The Supreme Court struck down the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering “immoral or scandalous” trademarks in its recent decision in Iancu v. Brunetti. Erik Brunetti is an artist who created a clothing line that uses the trademark FUCT. When he sought to register the mark, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) denied his application, citing the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering trademarks that contain immoral or scandalous matter. It is not hard to imagine that the mark would bring to mind perhaps the most famous four-letter curse word in American culture. Brunetti appealed and argued that the prohibition violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed with Brunetti and held that the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering immoral or scandalous trademarks is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. By way of example, the Court pointed out how the USPTO registered the mark “D.A.R.E. TO RESIST DRUGS AND VIOLENCE” but refused to register “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” because it “suggests that people should engage in an illegal activity [in connection with worship]” and since “Christians would be morally outraged by a statement that connects Jesus Christ with illegal drug use.”

The Supreme Court’s rationale follows the same line of thinking from its decision in Matal v. Tam, two years ago, when the Court held that the ban on registering marks that “disparage” any person living or dead was unconstitutional. In that case, the Court also held that if a trademark registration bar is viewpoint-based, then it is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Does this mean that American consumers are likely to see an influx of brand names containing lewd, sexually explicit, and profane slogans? Not necessarily. While the Lanham Act’s prohibition had prevented the registration of immoral or scandalous marks, there is nothing that previously prevented individuals or businesses from using immoral or scandalous marks in commerce and enforcing the mark against potential infringers. Registration simply provides trademark owners with additional, valuable benefits such as the legal presumption of national ownership of a trademark. In other words, the landscape for offensive marks being used in the marketplace is unlikely to change too much, but owners will have an easier time protecting and enforcing these types of marks.

Questions? Let Eric know.

Eric ClendeningEric Clendening is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Intellectual Property and Litigation Departments. He focuses his practice on intellectual property litigation and commercial litigation, including contract disputes, employment litigation, and other commercial disputes. He also advises clients on protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights online, including the resolution of domain name disputes and matters concerning e-commerce, online speech and conduct, and related intellectual property issues involving trademarks and copyrights.

Stairway to Retrial: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Cites Error in Led Zeppelin Infringement Ruling

Vintage Radio Microphone with Vinyl Records

In 2016, a California jury decided that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” did not infringe on Randy Wolfe’s “Taurus”.  However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed that decision and has now called for a do-over, citing reversible error in evidentiary rulings by the trial judge.  In particular, the Court of Appeals stated that the trial judge erred by failing to advise the jury that, while specific elements of a song are not protected, a combination of those elements could be protected, as well as prohibiting Wolfe’s camp from playing the actual recordings.

It has long been accepted that individual notes, chords, scales, rhythms and harmonies, as well as content in the public domain, are not protectable elements of a song.  However, the trial judge, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner, failed to instruct the jury that, while these elements may not individually or separately constitute copyrightable material, a combination of these elements could well be original enough to make out a case for a protectable copyright.  Ninth Circuit Judge Richard Paez stated, in pertinent part:

Nowhere did the jury instructions include any statements clarifying that the selection and arrangement of public domain elements could be considered original. Jury Instruction No. 20 compounded the errors of that omission by furthering an impression that public domain elements are not protected by copyright in any circumstances. This is in tension with the principle that an original element of a work need not be new; rather, it need only be created independently and arranged in a creative way. See Feist Publ’ns, 499 U.S. at 345, 349; see also Swirsky, 376 F.3d at 849. Jury Instruction Nos. 16 and 20 in combination likely led the jury to believe that public domain elements—such as a chromatic scale or a series of three notes—were not protectable, even where there was a modification or selection and arrangement that may have rendered them original.

This error was compounded by the trial court, according to the Ninth Circuit, when it also barred the jury from hearing the actual songs during the trial.

The district court excluded the sound recordings under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, finding that “its probative value is substantially outweighed by danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, [or] misleading the jury . . . .” Fed. R. Evid. 403. Here, the district court abused its discretion in finding that it would be unduly prejudicial for the jury to listen to the sound recordings in order to assess Page’s access to “Taurus.” The district court acknowledged that the recordings were relevant to whether Page had access to “Taurus,” as Page would have heard and allegedly copied a recording of “Taurus.” The district court was concerned, however, that allowing the jury to hear the recordings would confuse them.

While it is understandable for the trial judge to be concerned that listening to both songs in their entirety, when many of the individual elements are not protectable, could confuse the jury, the Ninth Circuit did not feel that this potential prejudicial effect outweighed its probative value.  While not explicitly stated, the Ninth Circuit may well have been suggesting that there would be no prejudice if the parties and their experts do their job in properly explaining the permissible and non-permissible elements.

However, the Ninth Circuit also suggested another reason that the songs should be played to the jury; specifically, that there could be probative value in the jury merely observing the reactions of the parties while the songs are being played.

Although the jury could still draw conclusions and inferences from Page’s demeanor during his testimony, allowing the jury to observe Page listening to the recordings would have enabled them to evaluate his demeanor while listening to the recordings, as well as when answering questions. Limiting the probative value of observation was not proper here, as the risk of unfair prejudice or jury confusion was relatively small and could have been reduced further with a proper admonition. For example, the district court could have instructed the jury that the recordings were limited to the issue of access and that they were not to be used to judge substantial similarity.

It seems inconceivable that Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and/or John Paul Jones are going to have any reaction while listening to the recordings, let alone any reaction that should lead a juror to draw any conclusion.  All of the parties have heard both versions numerous times prior to trial and, thus, there will certainly be no surprise.  The parties will also be even better prepared for testimony during the new trial.  They will be cognizant that any reaction could impact the outcome, as the court has signaled that any reaction is now something to look out for.

As the song goes, “There’s a feeling I get, when I look to the west.”  In this case, that feeling is that playing both songs in this California Federal Courthouse may confuse the jury and lead to a different result.

Questions? Let Jeff know.

Jeff Cohen is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation, Intellectual Property, Corporate and Real Estate Practice Groups. He has been a trial attorney for more than 23 years, counseling and representing a diverse range of clients in matters related to commercial contracts, shareholder and partnership agreements, trademarks, copyrights, patents, including Hatch-Waxman, insurance coverage, franchise disputes and commercial construction.

A How-To Guide for Singers and Songwriters to Obtain & Protect Their Copyrights

Hey Candidate, You Can’t Always Use What You Want!

Another national election is upon us and with each advertisement, arena event, train stop and rally, candidates pair music with the themes and messages of their campaigns.  However, the candidates’, particularly Trump’s, use of these hits has come under fire by the artists who write and perform the songs.  Artists, including Neil Young, Aerosmith, Survivor and, most recently, the Rolling Stones, have demanded that Trump cease and desist using their music in the past few months.

The artists objections are commonly based on politics that conflict with their own ideologies, or that of their fan base.  For example, in 1994, Bruce Springsteen famously denied Ronald Reagan’s request to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as a theme song about for Reagan’s bid for the White House.  Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was a song about the plight of a Vietnam veteran and he apparently did not want it turned into a patriotic rallying cry for a candidate he spoke out against during that campaign season.  In 2016, Trump has used, or tried to use, Neil Young’s “Rockin in the Free World”, Aerosmith’s “Dream On”, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” as part of his campaign.   All of these artists immediately, and very publicly, demanded Trump cease all use of their songs…some using their objection as a chance to rail against the candidate in a more general sense.

While the candidate almost always immediately, and wisely, ceases using the song that the artist objects to, the question lingers as to what would happen if the candidate continued to use the song over the objection of the artist.  Practically, the candidate would make himself/herself the target of someone who has a large publicity platform, and could ultimately shine a negative light on the candidate.  Legally, however, the artist has effective tools to stop the candidate from using their songs.

Get the Copyright

When the artist/writer puts pen to paper and creates an original work of authorship, the artist/writer has a common law copyright in that creation.  However, in order to establish a date for when the work/song was created, the artist should then register that work/song with the United States Copyright Office.  Registration of the work/song is inexpensive and can be done through the U.S. Copyright Office’s official website.  The important benefit of registering the song/work is that it establishes the date an artist created the work, so as to defeat claims by a person claiming a similar work at a later date.

Artists often have two registered copyrights on their songs.  The first is based on the written composition and is held by the person(s) that wrote the song.  The second copyright is the master recording of the song, which belongs to the artist(s) who performed the song.  The artist may own the master recording outright or may have assigned the rights to the master recording to the record company and/or music publisher.

It is important to note the artist only has protection for certain elements of a song.  The melody and the written lyrics of the song are enforceable protections under Copyright law.  However, the title of the song, basic chord progressions, and the general concept of the song are not protected.  Lines within lyrics are often not protected as well.  The gist of the protection is to protect the entirely of the lyrics, not just a line like “I love you more each day.”

How to Protect the Song/Copyrighted Work

While the creation of the song creates a protectable property and registration of that song with the U.S. Copyright Office establishes a date of creation, work still needs to be done to protect the song/work from use and copying.  When the artist becomes aware of a potential infringement (or copying) of the song/work, the artist should demand that the infringer cease and desist using the work.  If that does not stop the offending activity, the artist should file a complaint with a court of competent jurisdiction seeking to enjoin (stop) the offending party from using or copying the work during the pendency of the litigation and ultimately to permanently enjoin the offending party from ever using the work, along with money damages.  Once in litigation, the creator, in the case of use by a candidate, will have to show that the offending party used the work without a license or authorization or, in the case of another artist infringer, that the work is sufficiently similar to the original work, often through the testimony of an audiology/music expert.  In addition, the creator may also seek to show that, in the case of a candidate, use is creating public confusion, meaning that by the very use of a song at the campaign event, the public believes that the artist is endorsing the candidate.

Alternatively, if the creator artist is willing to allow the offending artist to use the song/work, or a protectable portion thereof (e.g. a “sample” of the work), the creator can license the work to others in return for payment (often calculated on a per use basis).  Licensing is common in both the world of politics and in the world of music.  A campaign can contact the person/entity who owns the song and request, or pay for, use of it.  An artist can do the same, usually in return for royalties.  How often have you heard a song reimagined, “covered” or “sampled”?  In most of those cases, a royalty or license has been agreed upon.  Where the “covering artist” or “sampler” fails to get the writer/artist’s agreement, litigation often ensues, not only leading to the original writer/artist obtaining damages for things such as the profits from the new artist but also a stain on the reputation of the new artist.

Regardless of the artist’s ideology, he/she should protect their song/work from anyone and everyone who seeks to use it.  Whether the artist supports the candidate seeking to use their work or is ideologically opposed to the candidate and his/her use, the artist should take action, either to halt the unauthorized use or to license the work.  Then, in the end, “you get what you need.”

Questions? Let Jeff know.

 

Jeffrey A. Cohen is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation, Intellectual Property, Corporate and Real Estate Practice Groups. He has been a trial attorney for more than 23 years, counseling and representing a diverse range of clients in matters related to commercial contracts, shareholder and partnership agreements, trademarks, copyrights, patents, including Hatch-Waxman, insurance coverage, franchise disputes and commercial construction.

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