A month ago the hot news was the federal copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill against Warner Brothers Entertainment, and Whitmill’s attempt to block the Memorial Day release of the highly anticipated blockbuster sequel movie The Hangover Part II, based on the film maker’s unauthorized reproduction and/or derivative of the tattoo design permanently inked on Tyson’s face, but still owned by the artist and creator of the design.

More recently, within the last week, the hot related news was the federal court’s decision to deny Whitmill’s motion for a preliminary injunction (brought to prevent the release of the film), but in reluctantly permitting the film’s timely release Chief Judge Catherine D. Perry seemed to foreshadow the likelihood of Warner Brothers paying dearly for not inking and negotiating a copyright license in advance.

What I find most interesting about the fact pattern of this lawsuit and the many presently unknown facts is the all-too-common potential for overlapping and competing intellectual property rights to the underlying subject matter in question — in this case, an artistic design that is copyrightable as an original work of authorship, and it also may function as a trademark or service mark, much like a logo or visual element of a brand. And, because the design now forms a permanent part of the visual appearance, persona, and likeness of a famous individual, it may also function as an element or aspect of Mike Tyson’s right of publicity.

When all possible intellectual property rights are bundled together and neatly owned by one party it permits the single owner to fully exploit the subject matter in a variety of ways by relying on multiple and differing legal rights, theories, and remedies. It gets pretty interesting, however, when not all of the intellectual property rights are owned by the same party — and, that’s when talented IP lawyers are needed to sort it all out, hopefully well in advance of the need for any enforcement.


Continue Reading Tattoos & Hangovers: The Headache of Competing IP Rights

The “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, is earning big money even after his death. To protect this income and value of his brand, a week ago, Michael Jackson’s estate brought suit in California against his mother’s business partner, alleging infringement of the valuable rights to Michael Jackson’s likeness, image, copyrights, trademarks (See Dan Kelly’s post on

This little gem arrived yesterday, basically an email promotion for this weekend, featuring Randy Moss and celebrating his return to the Minnesota Vikings:

Of course, I’m thrilled too, that Randy Moss has returned to play ball in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean we forget all about his legal rights (name, image, likeness, right of publicity, to name a few), not to mention the legal rights, trademarks, and trade dress of the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL.

By the way, the purported disclaimer at the bottom of the promotion saying: "All registered trademarks are the properties of their respective owners" doesn’t help either.  Putting aside the unanswered question about any unregistered trademarks shown in the promotion, all this statement reveals is that Lions Tap knows it doesn’t own what it is using, and it begs the question of whether the necessary permission was obtained from the necessary owners.

To the extent my assumption is correct, that Lions Tap didn’t obtain the necessary license and permission to run the above promotion, it appears Lions Tap may have forgotten all the intellectual property law it sought to teach McDonalds earlier this year when it filed a suit for trademark infringement over the Who’s Your Patty tagline . . . . 


Continue Reading Honoring Randy Moss Doesn’t Make It Fair Use

It is probably safe to assume that Channel 45 obtained permission to use Jennifer Aniston’s likeness and exploit her right of publicity in promoting viewership of syndicated Friends television programs. That’s a deal where everyone appears to win, Channel 45, viewers, advertisers, Aniston, and the other Friends cast members who share in the syndication royalties along with Ms. Aniston.

Learning at least a few new things each day is a good thing. One of the many things the special women in my life (wife and daughter) taught me today is the meaning of the apparently ubiquitous acronym BFFL: “Best Friends for Life.” So, the special men in my life learned something along with me today. I’m not sure what that says about me and my boys?

Anyway, this acronym got me thinking about all the billboard advertising promoting Friends reruns I have encountered over the last several months. It’s everywhere. What has struck me about this advertising (besides the sheer volume) is how different it is from the advertising that used to run while the television series was still being filmed and before the syndication of Friends, at least, as I recall. The website for KSTC-TV Channel 45 (based in the Twin Cities) depicts the kind of promotional photograph I recall seeing reguarly while the series was running and pre-syndication:

All six Friends cast members were promoted together as a united group or ensemble of, well, friends, apparently subscribing to the belief that the whole (the program) was greater than the sum of its parts (the cast members). This marketing approach (apparently required by Warner Brothers in the early days of the program) also was consistent with and reminiscent of the solidarity the Friends cast demonstrated during their multiple contract re-negotiations with NBC and Warner Brothers over the years. It is reported that each of the six received $1 Million per episode during the last two seasons, despite the likelihood that each of their relative values most likely was not commercially equivalent.


Continue Reading The Syndication of Friends: Jennifer Aniston Playing BFFL Role?

Airbrushing is a familiar technique among advertisers looking to avoid the risk of trademark infringement or dilution liability when branded props of others appear and would otherwise be recognizable. It can work well when removing a traditional visual trademark, i.e., a logo or word mark, because there can be no likelihood of confusion with (or dilution of) a visual mark when the claimed mark cannot be seen.

But what about when a branded prop dominates the ad or the identifiable trademark is another’s product container or package, a single color, trade dress, or perhaps the shape or configuration of the product or prop itself? What is critical for advertisers to appreciate is that when non-traditional trademarks are the subject of the ad and concern, the airbrush and any digital manipulation are less helpful and may be entirely ineffective in erasing trademark liability.

By way of a hypothetical example in the non-alcoholic beverage world, airbrushing the Coca-Cola word mark may not be sufficient to avoid liability, so long as the distinctive Coca-Cola bottle is left intact, say, in a Chevrolet ad. Likewise, by way of another hypothetical example, this time in the alcoholic beverage world, presumably the current owner of the Schlitz brand would object to another’s commercial use of its distinctive Schlitz label even if the Schlitz word mark was airbrushed or otherwise removed.

Now, for a not so hypothetical example concerning Schlitz’ ads, continue reading after the jump.


Continue Reading Using Another’s Body to Sell Your Products? The Problem of Airbrushing Non-Traditional Trademarks