There’s been a major update in the trademark infringement lawsuit brought by the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”) against the cafe and art gallery, MoMaCha in New York City.

MoMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction was recently granted by Judge Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York. As we discussed previously, the infringement allegations by MoMA were compelling, and it appears the court agrees that MoMA is likely to succeed on its claims, based primarily on the similarity of the marks and the relatedness of the parties’ goods/services in the same city (both parties display works of art along with offering cafe services). The court was particularly persuaded by the similarity of the vertical use of “MoMaCha,” as seen on the coffee cup above, with MoMA’s similar vertical use on the museum building signage above. (See Order at p. 18.)

The court’s preliminary injunction bars MoMaCha from continuing to use its name, logo, and the momacha.com domain name, at least while the legal proceedings are pending. As of today, the previous website, www.momacha.com is no longer accessible.

Instead, it appears that MoMaCha has already rebranded to a slightly different name, by changing one letter: MaMaCha, with a new website already available here: www.mamacha.nyc

Unfortunately, that probably won’t be sufficient to satisfy MoMA’s trademark infringement concerns. Indeed, the New York Times reported that MoMA has already sent a letter to “MaMaCha” regarding the new name and demanding that they cease use. The demand letter closes by stating:

Changing the ‘O’ in MOMACHA to an ‘A’ merely indicates your clients’ continued contempt for MoMA’s trademark rights. Your clients’ decision to change to a mark of such an infringing nature will be done at their peril.

As discussed in my last post, in the midst of trademark infringement allegations, extra caution is warranted. Just as one should be cautious with business expansion under an alleged infringing mark to mitigate damages, extra care is also warranted in selecting a new or modified mark (whether voluntarily or by court order) to avoid similar or further infringement claims, as there will be extra scrutiny and potentially over-aggressive enforcement by the opponent in the present dispute.

And as a practical matter, if one has to expend the effort and resources to re-brand, it may be more cost-effective to make a more significant, lower-risk change, rather than pushing boundaries with a minor change that may again be challenged, instigating further litigation expense, and requiring another re-brand. In many cases, simply changing one letter may not sufficient. Based on these developments thus far, I’m sure there will be interesting updates to come, so stay tuned.

Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, known as “MoMA,” sued a cafe and art gallery, MoMaCha, also located in New York City, asserting claims of trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition. As discussed in my post a couple months ago, although MoMaCha has some well-founded arguments and defenses, the allegations of the complaint are compelling, based on the similarity of the marks and the relatedness of the parties’ goods/services that are offered in the same city. MoMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction, filed in the Southern District of New York, is still pending. The case is The Museum of Modern Art v. MoMaCha IP LLC et al., No. 18-cv-03364-LLS (S.D.N.Y.)

Despite the threat of MoMA’s claims and motion for preliminary injunction, MoMaCha has announced plans to expand to three additional locations in New York City. This type of significant expansion — growing from one to four locations — is a bold move in light of MoMA’s claims, even if MoMaCha is feeling confident in the merits of its arguments and defenses. In particular, damages for trademark infringement under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a) can consist of all the defendant’s profits from its sales of goods/services under the infringing mark, which can add up quickly. Adding three more locations could mean a quadrupling of such potential damages, depending on their profit streams. Furthermore, damages can be tripled under Section 1117(a) based on the circumstances of the case. Therefore, a pending infringement claim can warrant a conservative approach to a defendant’s business expansion — or even limiting the use of the claimed infringing mark — until the dispute is resolved, to mitigate the risk of damages.

Nevertheless, it is possible that MoMaCha might be following this conservative approach. Despite their announcement several months ago to expand to three locations, and coverage of that expansion in the media including articles linked above, after a quick Google search I’m not seeing that any new locations have actually opened, but any New Yorkers out there, let me know if you’ve seen more MoMaCha’s opening up. Stay tuned for updates.

CR Poster

At some point in this digital age, almost every individual or business in the creative space will discover that somebody has copied them. You may see it yourself, or you may get the stomach-dropping “Doesn’t this look an awful lot like…..” e-mail from a friend. It might be that potential client who said your design “was nice, but wasn’t for us.” It could be a big company with a new shirt/container/advertisement with a strikingly similar photograph. It could be a blog post that . . ., well, you get the idea. When you discover that someone copied something that you created, there are a lot of questions and it’s rarely as simple as “someone copied my stuff!” So here are a few things to consider as you decide on next steps.

First, does your work qualify for copyright protection? Any one who creates an original, creative work of authorship has a valid copyright interest as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The bar for what is “creative enough” to qualify is low. Very low. Even the mere selection, arrangement, and display of facts in a graph or a telephone book may qualify as a creative work of authorship.  However, there are some limitations. Copyright law only protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. So while a cookbook focused on chicken sandwiches would be protected, the underlying recipe (and sandwich) is not. Also, words and short phrases like book or movie tittles are not protected by copyright. But yes, the image you grabbed from a Google image search through likely is.

However, as long as you meet have a modicum of creativity, and as long as you didn’t copy someone else’s expression, you likely have a valid copyright. This is true even if you haven’t registered your copyright with the Copyright Office. However, a registration (or pending application to register) is generally a prerequisite for bringing a lawsuit, and can open up additional types of relief if the infringement occurred after the registration of the copyright.

Second, are you the owner of the work? Generally, the author is the owner, unless ownership has been transferred. For businesses, if an employee created the work within the scope of their employment, then the employer is likely the author. The work for hire doctrine can be tricky, so it is best to drill down and confirm ownership before asserting any claim of infringement. If you’re not the author, you may be able to contact the former employee, contractor, etc. and obtain an assignment of the copyright interest.

Third, is the “infringer” really infringing? Copyright law only protects the expression of a work, not the idea of a work. The James Bond franchise has a number of valuable copyright protected works: books, movies, characters, etc. While there are broad rights associated with the franchise, the copyright does not give the owner the ability to claim rights in the idea of a British secret agent. The tough part is locating the fine line between idea and expression. There also a question of  whether the “infringer” is making a legitimate “fair use” of the copyright work. Is the copy part of a social commentary on a relevant issue or topic, like gender stereotypes? Could creation of an online repository of shared links, images, and articles a la Pinterest qualify as a fair use? These are important questions to consider when deciding whether to pursue any further action.

Finally, what are your options? You could start with a short email or phone call. Third-parties may not realize something is protected. The “infringer” may happily stop selling/posting/distributing the copied work. An attorney can assist, providing you with talking points, ghost writing a letter, or if you prefer contact the alleged infringer directly. If the copy is on the internet, there is likely a method for you to request that the website/app/hosting service remove access to the infringing work through a Notice of Claimed Infringement. YouTube, Facebook, eBay, and others all have online submission forms. Be aware, however, making wholly unreasonable claims of infringement could lead to the alleged infringer turning the tables.  Of course, a lawsuit is an (expensive) option but as noted above, a registration or pending application is necessary to bring  a lawsuit. If the work has value (economic or personal), you should consider applying to register the copyright to at least expand your response options, and your potential recovery.

Creative individuals and companies put a lot of time, effort, and money to create something that is valuable to them. When you discover that someone took a shortcut at your expensive, it can be personally offensive and you want to make it stop, now. The law provides an avenue for relief, but unfortunately it often may not provide you with the scope of protection you thought you had. So if you or a client runs across a copycat, hit the pause button. Someone may have “copied your stuff,” but they may not have committed copyright infringement.