Well, here we are — a mere ten years ago today — when we dove head first, or at least, dipped our collective toes into the vast intellectual property blogging pond.

Intellectual PropertyIP — is italicized today, because there is currently a belief among some of those we respect, that trademarks aren’t intellectual property.

According to our friend Ron Coleman of the Likelihood of Confusion blog:

“[N]othing about trademarks is brain-born other than what we might fairly call the ministerial choice to associate a given trademark with a good or service. That process may involve, and often does, a lot of thinking, creativity and intellection. But none of that invests the trademark itself — which may, in fact, be completely lacking in creativity (“Best,” “Ford,” “American”) — with the quality of intellectual, mental, creative or original content such that it should be deemed ‘intellectual property.’”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but until then, just so you know, I’m firmly on the other side of the fence, viewing trademarks as being a recognized subset of the convenient category label commonly referred to as “intellectual property.”

Stay tuned on this topic, there is much more to say, much more than there is time left in this 10th birthday to do the topic justice, but for now, I’ll simply rest with a notable quote from branding icon, Walter Landor:

“Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”

While trademarks aren’t brands, not only can trademarks be bought, sold, licensed, and leveraged as property, trademarks protect brands, and they embody all the intangible goodwill of the portion of a business associated with a particular mark.

Dare I say there is nothing ministerial about the brain-born brilliance Landor brought to his craft as a designer, nor is there mere ministerial contribution to the brilliance and creativity that our many non-lawyer guest bloggers have brought to their work over the last decade. Aaron? James? Mark? Agree?

We’ve written a lot over the years about picking a side, the art of taking a position, not waffling; one of the things we love about Ron is he is unafraid to take a position, to plant his flag firmly in the ground — that’s what we’ve tried to do too, and what we intend to continue to do going forward.


 

Here’s a question, what purpose is served by excluding trademarks from the definition of what constitutes intellectual property? Here’s another, who gets to decide?

Many years ago, as a young lawyer, I experienced the utter joy of helping a client dismiss a copyright infringement lawsuit against it, because the plaintiff’s claimed copyright hadn’t yet been registered with the Library of Congress.

Seemed like an obvious error for the plaintiff to file when it did, since the federal copyright statute, according to my reading, required that registration be made (or denied) before a lawsuit could be brought, mere application was not enough.

Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve observed creative lawyers convince some courts that the language isn’t that clear, leading to a split in the various federal courts, some courts allowing suit based on the mere filing of an application.

So, imagine my surprise this morning, to read that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided the issue once and for all: It is actually pretty clear from the language of the statute, mere applications to register are not enough to allow filing a lawsuit.

That’s right, earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Fourth Estate Pub. Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, Justice Ginsburg delivering the unanimous decision of the Court:

“Impelling prompt registration of copyright claims, 17 U.S.C. §411(a) states that ‘no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until . . . registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.’ The question this case presents: Has ‘registration . . . been made in accordance with [Title 17]’ as soon as the claimant delivers the required application, copies of the work, and fee to the Copyright Office; or has ‘registration . . . been made’ only after the Copyright Office reviews and registers the copyright?”

“For the reasons stated, we conclude that ‘registration . . . has been made’ within the meaning of 17 U. S. C. §411(a) not when an application for registration is filed, but when the Register has registered a copyright after examining a properly filed application.”

So, with that, at least two takeaways emerge.

First, those who create copyrightable expression have yet another incentive to promptly register the copyrights in their creative works.

Second, issues that seem obvious on their face can nevertheless, through creative lawyering, tie the courts up in knots for decades.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

It’s that time of year! Baseball Spring Training is here! In honor of this, I’m looking at the fun names in Minor League Baseball. Some of them demonstrate the key principles of name development!

Minor League Baseball team names can be dull and boring. For example, there are some that just reflect the name of the parent Major League Team (e.g., Oklahoma City Dodgers, Syracuse Mets, Springfield Cardinals or Iowa Cubs). Yawn.

Or maybe they use a traditional animal such as the Burlington Bees or the classic Durham Bulls. These are a little more interesting, but not especially engaging.

Some teams are “swinging for the fences” with their names. When you think about what is important in naming your minor league team, you should focus on 3 things. Team names should be fun, relevant to the local population, and quirky enough to be memorable.

Here are some examples of team names that are “hitting it out of the park.”

  1. The Madison, Alabama, Rocket City Trash Pandas – Yes, there is a large NASA facility nearby (that includes Space Camp) in Huntsville so the “Rocket City” moniker is no surprise. The Trash Pandas came from a consumer contest and won the public vote by a large margin. The previous team name was the uninspiring Mobile BayBears. For the record, the other finalists were space-animal combinations: Moon Possums, ThunderSharks, Space Chimps, and Comet Jockeys.

    Even though the Trash Pandas won’t start playing until 2020, they broke the three-month sales record for merchandise sold by a rebranded Minor League Baseball team with over $500,000 in merchandise moved in nearly 3,500 online orders.
  2. The El Paso Chihuahuas – When the former Tuscon Padres moved to El Paso in 2013 the team ran a naming contest and fans chose between these finalists: Aardvarks, Buckaroos, Chihuahuas, Desert Gators, and Sun Dogs. While Team Management was initially a little apprehensive about the name, their focus on fun drove sales of Chihuahuas merchandise to record setting levels.
  3. The New Orleans Baby Cakes – According to a team PR release, the Baby Cakes name is “A tribute to the Mardi Gras king cakes where small plastic babies are sought after.” In the 2017 rebranding, the former New Orleans Zephyrs held a name-the-team contest and the finalists were Baby Cakes, Crawfish, King Cakes, Night Owls, Po’boys, Red Eyes, and Tailgators.

    Although the Baby Cakes name was initially met with mixed reactions, the team reported increased merchandise sales after the announcement and the rebrand set a record for online merchandise orders. Of note, the team awarded a free lifetime pass to any baby born in the state of Louisiana during 2017 and was entered into a raffle to win a full four-year tuition to a state college in Louisiana upon their 18th birthday in 2035.
  4. In 2019 the Amarillo Sod Poodles begin play – Per the team, Sod Poodles is a “pioneer’s nickname for ‘Prairie Dogs.'” This name emerged victorious in a “Name the Team” contest, triumphing over other selections rooted in Amarillo’s Texas Panhandle location: Boot Scooters, Bronc Busters, Jerky and Long Haulers.
  5. The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp – Previous renditions of teams in Jacksonville included the Jacksonville Expos (referencing the parent Montreal Expos) and the Jacksonville Suns. You’ve got to admit that the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp is an upgrade, even if it is an oxymoron.

    And speaking of oxymoron, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp was an answer on Jeopardy earlier this year!Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp✔@JaxShrimp

    Hey @thereal4smo – we loved your work on @Jeopardy tonight. Can we interest you in to coming to Jacksonville for a ballgame this season? Follow back and message us if you’re interested!

 

If you want to check out the bible of the weird team names of Minor League Baseball, check out this book: Root for the Home Team: Minor League Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Team Names and the Stories Behind Them.

Someday I’d like to work in the “Funnest” brand name category in America–Minor League Baseball Teams!

Welcome to another edition of Single Letter Brands. This one was uncovered in the far southwest corner of the country, if you haven’t been, I highly recommend a visit:

Q is a casino/resort near Yuma, Arizona. Here’s a question, what does Q stand for?

In this context, near Yuma, we’re not talking this Q casino, but rather, The Quechan, a Native American tribe, living on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, located on the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California, just north of the Mexican border:

The Objects in the Rear May Appear Closer Than They Are, Really.

Here’s another question: Why do you suppose The Quechan haven’t pursued registration of Q at the USPTO? Perhaps this federally-registered Q casino mark?

Here’s yet another question: Is there room on the Principal Register, for multiple differently stylized Q casino marks? I’ll answer that one with another question: Would you rather have really thin national rights or broad, but more local rights?

And, your Answers?

Does Sanas Health Practice Ltd. (“Sanas Health”) think that Daenerys or Sansa will win at the end of the wildly popular Game Of Thrones series and ultimately sit on the Iron Throne?  Sanas Health filed two applications for the mark “QUEEN OF THRONES” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). Interestingly, the Applicant’s name Sanas is extremely similar to the Game of Thrones show leading character Sansa Stark. This may be merely a coincidence but could be argued to enhance confusion between the GAME OF THRONES® marks and the applied for “QUEEN OF THRONES” mark.

I guess there could even be those out there that think Cersei will not die in the final season (not me) and instead will end up on the Iron Throne at the end of the series. But, I am thinking most people agree with me that she will not survive (and will likely be killed by one of her brothers – my bet is on Jaimie).

Not surprisingly, Home Box Office (“HBO”) believes that Sanas Health is trying to capitalize on the goodwill of its famous GAME OF THRONES® mark and brand; and thereby, diluting its distinctive and famous GAME OF THRONES® marks. HBO further believes that the “QUEEN OF THRONES” mark is confusingly similar with its marks. Accordingly, HBO has filed a Notice of Opposition against these applications (No. 91246195).

By way of background, HBO has thirty-one (31) registrations and applications for GAME OF THRONES marks (including design marks and GAME OF THRONES with additional words such as GAME OF THRONES CONQUEST®, GAME OF THRONES THE THREE-EYED RAVEN®, GAME OF THRONES ASCENT®, and GAME OF THRONES BEYOND THE WALL) in connection with various goods and services.

Sanas Health applied for its “QUEEN OF THRONES” mark in connection with:

  • “Castor oil for medical purposes,” IC 5 (Ser. No. 87/839,043); and
  • “Nutrition counseling; Dietary and nutritional guidance; Providing a website featuring information about health, wellness and nutrition; Providing information about dietary supplements and nutrition,” IC 44  (Ser. No. 87/922,698).

This is not HBO’s first time seeking to protect its marks related to the Game Of Thrones series and brands. HBO has three (3) trademark registrations and an application for WINTER IS COMING®, which is the House of Stark-centric premiere episode of the Game of Thrones series. The Purple Wine Company attempted to register the “WINTER IS COMING” mark in connection with wines. HBO opposed the application and the Purple Wine Company failed to respond. The mark is now abandoned.

The Examining Attorney found the recent application for “WINTER IS COMING” filed by Chen Yufang to be confusingly similar with HBO’s WINTER IS COMING® marks and issued an Office Action preventing registration. We will have to see if Mr. Yufang serves a response to this Office Action or abandons the application. If he does not abandon the Application and is able to overcome the Office Action, I would anticipate that HBO would file a Notice of Opposition against his application for the famous “WINTER IS COMING” mark.

Fans of the Game of Thrones series are aware of the fanciful word “Dracarys” as a command to Daenerys’ the fire breathing dragons. HBO opposed an application filed by Hangzhou Wanry Imp. & Exp. Co., Ltd.  (“Hangzhou”) to register the “DRACARYS” mark in connection with numerous automobile related accessories. HBO opposed the application and Hangzhou failed to respond. The mark is now abandoned.

Fan favorite Tyrion Lannister proclaimed, “That’s what I do. I drink and I know Things” in season six of Game of Thrones, and HBO’s official trailer for the sixth season included this saying. When Francis Collins from Florida tried to register this mark in connection with t-shirts, HBO relied upon its common law rights associated with its sale of t-shirts having the “That’s what I do. I drink and I know Things” mark to oppose the Application. Ms. Collins defaulted and her application for the mark is now abandoned and dead.

DuetsBlog has featured other posts related to the famous show and its brand, including Martha’s post here, and mine here.

The wait is almost over.  The final six episodes of Game of Thrones start on April 14.  We will have to see if there is a King or Queen who ends up on the Iron Throne and what happens to the “QUEEN OF THRONES” applications.

No worries, I’m back at the keyboard, refreshed after a busy January, from the ATA Show in Louisville to Las Vegas for the SHOT Show, then Austin, and well beyond.

2019 is off to a rapid start, not sure where the first half of February went, so I’ll make sure this is a good one, and with a little luck, it might even be a great one:

Did my iPhone capture a production anomaly in the soap on display? Note the disconnect between the word and the stuff that I’m not sure I’d want to rub on me.

How often do we hear, “Oh it’s good enough,” or “Yeah, it’s pretty good”? — Good seems pretty watered down today, bordering on being just OK, a passing grade.

Kind of reminds me of AT&T Wireless’ funny Just OK Is Not OK commercials. Let’s just say, good seems much further from CNP than BGE — Barely Good Enough.

A Friday evening shopping run to Whole Foods provided inspiration for this blog post; as you will recall, it’s not the first, others preceed it, e.g., here, here, and here.

So, imagine my surprise that someone actually would try to “brand” soap as good.

Turns out, that someone has infused more than the common meaning into the word, incorporating the more active “do-good” kind, with a real social impact.

Before learning of that aspect to the brand, I was left wondering, is good — well, enough to serve as a distinctive trademark, in other words, is it ownable, as IP?

Turns out, it apparently is, Good Soap is federally-registered for “sustainably manufactured beauty products, namely fair trade shea butter soap” — no less than 500+ pages of evidence was submitted to establish acquired distinctiveness.

At the end of the day, I’m still left wondering about the reasonable scope of rights?

With the mildly laudatory Good, it’s probably no surprise that other coexisting soap marks have slipped into the same laudatory-themed bubble bath as Good Soap:

Besides all those, why did the USPTO allow this Good soap mark to coexist, much less achieve federal registration without a showing of acquired distinctiveness?

Perhaps another less-than-wonderful style of truncated examination at the USPTO?

With a broader identification of goods, covering simply “soaps” — and no apparent “do-good” double meaning, how did the informational matter refusal slip by too?

Back to what Good might mean to consumers, at first blush, it seems facially about managing normal expectations, but Great is about exceeding them.

Assuming the product attributes live up to the name, wouldn’t a brand rather be great than simply good? In other words, can Good Soap, ever be a Great brand?

By the way, this is not anywhere close to our first soapbox when it comes to getting lathered up over soap trademarks:

You can be the judge of what is good versus great. Yes, lather, rinse and repeat.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Every now and then, lightning strikes where a creative team sees a terrific, fast-turn opportunity to have a little fun. I think of them as targets of opportunity.

We had one some years ago when we were in the midst of creating a series of mailers for a search-technology client. Early in December, the spark hit and we scrambled to make this idea happen in time:

Looks like lightning struck for the GMC creative team when the LA Rams made it to the Super Bowl. I don’t know if this was a national ad, but it appeared on my Super Bowl Sunday morning doorstep in its full-page, Boston Globe glory.

Perfectly timed delivery 12 hours before the game, perfectly targeted to Boston.

The only quibble is whether there actually was a competition to introduce the first six-function tailgate, or even if that’s a deciding factor for a substantial percentage of truck buyers. It would have been perfect all around if it were announcing that GMC sales had been tops.

But that’s a minor point. This one’s a winner for the creative team and GMC for seeing the opportunity, seeing the target, and hitting the short window to take advantage of it.

Over the last decade, we’ve covered Super Bowl topics, it’s that time of year again!

We’ve probed the NFL’s overzealous activities and asked hard fair use questions.

And, with Big Game LII in our backyard, we had a front row ambush marketing seat.

With digital marketing, that front row seat can be anywhere your iPhone takes you:

The top half of the email advertisement from Tuesday, landing in my inbox (shown above), seems to have a better argument for a nominative fair use defense than the the bottom half of the same ad (shown below), agree?

Assuming Birch’s is not an actual licensee, seems to me a rather difficult argument that use of the Super Bowl LIII logo is really fair and necessary for communicating truthfully, but, what say you?

UPDATE:

Hot off the email press and inbox from yesterday, here is another Super Bowl ambush, note their favoring of “Big Game” over “Super Bowl”:

So, they may have avoided the NFL’s wrath, but what about the Patriots and Rams logos on the helmets, fair use, or not, friends?

Here’s to looking at you again, James!

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

No one does the Carlton quite like Carlton Banks.  (Queue Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual.)  Since actor Alfonso Ribeiro first performed the unique dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it has been readily associated with him.  When the dance move recently appeared as a purchasable avatar dance in the popular video game, Fortnite, players quickly recognized Carlton’s signature move.

 

Fortnite is a battle royale-style combat game in which players, through their avatars, fight to the finish.  In-game purchases allow players to download character skins, clothing, and emotes (dances) for their avatars to perform on the battlefield.  In January 2018, the makers of Fortnite introduced a new emote available for purchase: a Carlton-esque dance called the Fresh.  When a player purchases and downloads the Fresh emote, the player’s avatar can perform the dance move on command.

Ribeiro filed suit against Fortnite creator, Epic Games, last month in a California federal district court.  The suit has been widely reported as a copyright case, prompting many to analyze whether short dance moves like the Carlton are eligible for copyright protections.  Their collective answer: probably not.

Copyright Choreography

While choreographic works are eligible for copyright, the US Copyright Office states that it will not register for copyright “short dance routines consisting of only a few movement or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.”  Individual steps or movements, such as the Waltz step, hustle step and grapevine are not copyrightable, according to the Copyright Office’s guidance in Circular 52.  Social dances are similarly not eligible for copyright registration.  “[U]ncopyrightable social dances are generally intended to be performed by members of the public for the enjoyment of the dancers themselves,” as opposed to registrable choreographic works, which are “intended to be executed by skilled performers before an audience.”  At most, it is unclear whether the Carlton is complex enough, or includes enough movements or length, to be eligible for copyright protections.  Of course even if the Carlton dance is copyrightable, NBC Productions might have something to say about ownership of the copyright.

But Ribeiro’s suit against the makers of Fortnite alleges more than mere copyright infringement.  In addition, Ribeiro is suing Epic Games for violation of his statutory and common law right of publicity.

Vanna White-bot, Here’s Johnny Toilets, and the Right of Publicity

In general, the right of publicity protects an individual’s right to control the commercial use of her name and likeness.  In California, courts have defined a broad right of publicity.

Federal courts have determined that the California common law right of publicity is not strictly limited to an individual’s name and likeness.  In White v. Samsung Electronics, Vanna White sued Samsung for its depiction of a robot adorned with blond wig, gown, and jewelry in a VCR ad.  971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992).  The familiar robot was posed next to a gameshow letter board reminiscent of the Wheel of Fortune.  The caption read, “Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D.”  Notably, the case is from 1992, and the ad was part of a campaign depicting use of various Samsung products in a futuristic setting.  Recognizing that although the defendants did not actually use White’s name or image, the court determined that the ad was clearly intended to depict White and presented colorable right of publicity claim.

In another case, the Ninth Circuit held that Ford Motor’s use of a Bette Midler sound-alike voice was a violation of Midler’s right of publicity, even without any use of Midler’s name or image.  Midler v. Ford Motor Co., 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir. 1988).  And in Carson v. Here’s Johnny Portable Toilets, the Sixth Circuit held that the defendant’s use of the phrase “Here’s Johnny” to market portable toilets was a misappropriation of Carson’s persona.  810 F.2nd 104 (6th Cir. 1987)

In light of this precedent, Ribeiro’s right of publicity claims seem stronger than his copyright claims.  The complaint also includes claims under the Lanham Act and California statutes for unfair competition.  Ribeiro alleges that the company’s use of the dance move creates a false impression that either Epic Games created the dance move or that Ribeiro provided sponsorship.

What are your thoughts on these unfair competition claims?   Are they stronger than the copyright infringement claims?

The Vanna White case also included a Lanham Act unfair competition claim.  The court in that case recognized a celebrity’s ability to bring such claims to protect her persona.  The court permitted the Lanham Act claim to proceed to a jury along with White’s right of publicity claim.  Ultimately, the jury found for White and awarded over $400,000.

Others Join the Fight

Ribeiro is not the only artist to challenge Epic Games on the IP battlefield.  Rapper 2 Milly (Terrance Ferguson) sued Epic Games for creating an emote based on his Milly Rock dance.  And most recently, Backpack Kid (Russell Horning) sued Epic Games for introducing an emote modeled after his viral Floss dance.  Both complaints include claims for copyright infringement, violation of right of publicity, and unfair competition claims.