Tag Archives: intellectual property law

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

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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.

New NHL Las Vegas Team Issued Initial Refusal for “Golden Knights” Trademarks, But Registration Is Still Possible

The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued an initial refusal to the new NHL franchise in their efforts to trademark “LAS VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS” and “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS” – citing a likelihood of confusion with the registered mark “GOLDEN KNIGHTS COLLEGE OF SAINT ROSE.”  Each mark was registered for entertainment services (ice hockey exhibitions) and clothing.

Importantly, this is a common initial outcome when applying for a mark that has competitors in the same market using a similar mark.  While some media sites opted for more incendiary headlines in stating that the trademark has been “denied,” registration is still quite possible as the Vegas franchise is now given six months to respond to the Trademark office’s initial refusal.

Sports teams using the same nickname as one another is nothing new.  There are many examples of professional and college teams sharing the same name – e.g. Boston Bruins (NHL) and UCLA Bruins (college).  The Simpsons weighed in on the subject years ago, poking fun at the overuse of “Wildcats” as a team nickname:

To overcome the initial refusal, the Vegas franchise will need to show, among other things, that likelihood of confusion will not be an issue.  One problem is that “GOLDEN KNIGHTS” is displayed in both marks more prominently than any of the other words or descriptors.  In addition, the College of Saint Rose and the Vegas franchise will be using the marks in connection with the same goods and services – sporting events and clothing sales.

Another problem is that the College of Saint Rose registered the mark in connection with a particular design and stylized type face.  The Vegas franchise attempted to register their mark in standard characters, which would allow them to display the words in any design and type face – meaning that the two marks could be presented and displayed in the same manner, a “likelihood of confusion” issue which is explicitly cited by the trademark examiner in the initial refusal.

In response to the Trademark office, the Vegas franchise will most likely cite the numerous examples of professional and college teams sharing nicknames, as well as professional teams in different sports sharing nicknames – e.g. Arizona Cardinals (NFL) and St. Louis Cardinals (MLB).  In this case, it may also be crucial that the College of Saint Rose does not have an ice hockey team.  The Vegas franchise is also likely to disclaim “Las Vegas” and “Vegas” as unregistrable portions of their marks, because exclusive rights cannot be obtained in wording that is primarily geographically descriptive of the origin of the goods or services identified in the trademark application.

It remains to be seen whether the Vegas franchise will ultimately be successful in registering the “GOLDEN KNIGHTS” marks, but the matter is far from over, as the initial refusal is just the beginning.

For more information on registering trademarks and intellectual property law, contact Eric Clendening, a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Intellectual Property Department.

Eric R. 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.

 

 

 

 

Influential from the Stage to the Courtroom: Prince’s Lasting Impact on Copyright Ownership

In the weeks following the tragic sudden death of Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince), much of the media and general public have shared their memories of one of the most prolific and talented musicians in the country’s history.  Countless individuals have shared personal stories of the enigmatic artist or shared highlights of his legendary live performances.

Prince was also, however, a pioneer in intellectual property law, specifically with respect to copyrights.  In 2007, through his publishing administrator, Prince instituted litigation to stop a mother from posting a video of her own 13-month-old son merely dancing to Prince’s hit song, “Let’s Go Crazy.”  While that case is still active, the Ninth Circuit already issued a precedential opinion cautioning that copyright holders have a duty to consider in good faith whether allegedly infringing material constitutes fair use prior to sending a takedown notification.  More recently, Prince sued 22 of his own fans in 2014 for $1 million each for posting videos taken at his concerts, but the backlash of an artist suing his own fans quickly led him to voluntarily dismiss the action.

Prince’s most prolonged copyright battle, however, concerned his transfer of copyrights to his record label, Warner Brothers.  Prince signed with Warner Brothers in 1977, when he was just 18 years old, but he promptly soured on the idea that Warner Brothers owned the rights to any music he released.  In the early 1990s, Prince went as far as to change his name to an unpronounceable, self-described “love symbol” in an effort to release music on his own terms and own the copyrights to his work.  Warner Brothers, in an effort to protect its asserted contractual rights, resisted Prince’s efforts to break his record contract, regardless of what he wanted to call himself.

Prince, however, eventually gained bargaining power due to a key section of the 1976 Copyright Act.  Section 203 of the Act provides for the termination of copyright transfers during a five-year period, beginning 35 years after the execution of the initial grant of the copyright transfer.  The 7th Circuit stated that the purpose of that section is to give authors and their heirs a second chance to market works even after a transfer of rights has been made.  Accordingly, even if an artist signs a contract with a record company transferring all rights in a work in perpetuity, after 35 years, the artist or his/her heirs can terminate that grant and demand that the rights revert back to the artist.

For over 20 years, Prince’s protests such as changing his name and appearing in public with the word “slave” written across his face accomplished very little.  At the end of 2013, however, Section 203’s 35-year window was set to expire.  Deadlines typically spur action, and this was no exception. In early 2014, Prince and Warner Brothers reached a landmark agreement that gave Prince control over his back catalog.

Prince’s plight and hard stance against his record label paved the way for artists who produce copyrighted works today, especially in light of technological advances since Prince signed his initial Warner Brothers contract.  In 1977, it was likely unfathomable that artists could avoid signing contracts with companies to finance, manufacture, promote, and distribute their works.  In the digital/social media era, however, artists can directly connect much more easily with their customers.  Some musicians have declined to sign with large record labels to retain control over every aspect of the creation and release of their music.  Whether or not these artists acknowledge it, Prince undoubtedly influenced those artists who now make it a priority to maintain complete control over their works.

It is possible that in 2016, the 35-year window of Section 203 is too long a window to motivate emerging artists, who are looking for companies to pay the costs of production and marketing and provide them with up-front dollars, to hold tight to the ownership rights in their copyrighted works.  Regardless of whether Section 203 is amended to adjust to the digital era, however, there is little doubt that Prince’s public legal battles concerning copyrights have at least paved the way for artists to be more educated about their rights, and they will have a long-lasting impact on the music industry.

 

Questions? Let Scott know.

Scott C. Oberlander is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department, representing businesses and individuals in a wide range of disputes. He has particular experience counseling clients in various industries with respect to breach of contract claims, unfair and deceptive business practices, employment disputes and administrative actions.

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