Aren’t digital advertising billboards amazing? My iPhone captured this rolling series of images just yesterday, for a health care organization using the Google trademark in the Minneapolis skyway:

My questions, permission, co-branding, no permission, but classic or nominative fair use?

Is Google flattered? Free advertising? Do they care? Should they care?

Discuss, to quote John Welch, on another subject.

Who would you expect to find sitting at the end of the bar in this recently re-named Minneapolis sports bar, formerly known as Halek’s Bar?

What if you were to queue a very familiar tune to these lyrics, would that help?

Yeah, I was thinking of these guys too:

But, what if these guys have nothing to do with it? And what if CBS Studios, owner of the Cheers brand, has nothing to do with this place either?

Are any permissions required? If so, who do you need them from? And, what legal theories are potentionally implicated? Copyright? Trademark? Unfair Competition? Misappropriation? Right of Publicity? Any others?

This signage would be great fodder for a law school exam in an intellectual property course, agree? Feel free to make up your own hypothetical on what adorns the walls inside, I’ve never been.

If the interior in your hypothetical plays up what one comment on the bar’s Facebook page suggests (“This place has been loved by many over the years; full of working class people. You could definitely call it the cheers bar of Minneapolis.”), beware Conan Properties, Inc. v. Conans Pizza, Inc., finding likelihood of confusion with use of Conan’s Pizza for a restaurant featuring decor that evoked the theme of the character “Conan the Barbarian.”

Gentle reminder, when you or your client is tempted by a name that everyone knows, it might be prudent to also visit a place where everyone knows your name (and everyone knows your rights under the intellectual property laws), so you can minimize the chances of this becoming the most applicable theme song: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.”

Absorbing all the television commercials in between football action on the field can be as much fun on Super Bowl Sunday as the actual game itself, at least for trademark and marketing types, especially when your favorite team isn’t even on the field.

One of my personal favorites from this past weekend’s Super Bowl XLVI was the above “Chevy” Apocalypse advertisement, and not because it reminded me about GM’s Chevy trademark dodging the fatal lyrics: “This Will Be The Day That I Die”.

Instead, what caught my attention — beyond the controversy surrounding how Chevy called out Ford by name — were the other unrelated food brand references (Twinkies and Big Boy), leaving me wondering whether GM obtained advance permission for the use of these marks and/or whether GM might have shared the cost of the spot with these brands appearing as possible paid placements.

No need to wonder whether GM obtained advance permission from Ford, obviously it didn’t, and we’ll see whether a false advertising lawsuit results from it.

But, back to the third party food brands, could it be that the Twinkies appearance in the Chevy Apocalypse ad served as an additional jab at the perhaps indestructable ingredients of the snack food, recognizing that the bankrupt Hostess brand may not be in the best position to object? And, what about the charred Big Boy restaurant signage?

By all accounts, this must have been an interesting ad to clear — attempting to dodge and/or minimize the risk of potential claims from Ford, Hostess, and the various concurrent owners of the Big Boy mark.

What are your thoughts about these third party brand references? How would you have navigated this one? Permission necessary for some or all? Nominative fair use for some or all?

Someone who is in the business of repairing Volvo brand automobiles has the right to say so, in advertising, and elsewhere — without obtaining advance permission from Volvo — provided consumers aren’t likely to understand the advertisement or communication to mean that the repair services and/or the business providing them is authorized by, affiliated with, or otherwise connected to the Swedish automobile manufacturer. So, as is often the case, the devil is in the details of the advertisement or communication and how it is likely to be perceived by consumers.

Indeed, over the years, there has been much litigation over the trademark fair use right and defense of independent repair shops, but suffice it to say, for our limited purposes here, using the Volvo logo on signage or in advertising would most likely cross the fair use line. (Interesting history of the Volvo logo, here). Doing so takes more than necessary to communicate the simple truth and probably implies authorized status. Of course, other activities that fall short of logo use may too, but activities simply and truthfully representing that one repairs Volvo automobiles, without more, should be fair use — nominative fair use of a trademark, that is.

Over the last year and a half, we have written a lot about trademark fair use, both classic fair use and nominative fair use doctrines (Levi’s Double Arcuate Design, Corvette Shape, Rapala-Google Billboard, Google Fortune Kit, 3M’s Post-it Note, Wal-Mart Gift Cards, For Car Lovers, Fans BillboardSummit Beer/Twitter Billboard), nevertheless, it is probably worth repeating the necessary elements of a successful nominative fair use trademark defense here:

(1) The product cannot be readily identified without using the trademark;

(2) Only so much of the trademark is used as is necessary for the identification; and

(3) No sponsorship or endorsement of the trademark owner is suggested by the use.

So, given these key elements of a successful nominative fair use defense, imagine my surprise each time I hear the ad — from a Relevant Radio sponsor on AM 1330 in Minneapolis — refraining from use of the two syllable Volvo brand name in the ad; instead, using precious airtime to read this cumbersome mouthful: "We Repair Automobiles From Sweden Starting With The Letter V," or something similar to that effect. This may very well define the need for the first element of the defense in being not "readily identified without using the" Volvo trademark.

Given that, each time I hear it, I’m left wondering why? As a trademark type, I’ll have to admit, it’s a bit annoying, since this extra verbiage is totally unnecessary and not legally required. So, here are a few ideas on the possible reason for the mysterious and puzzling substitution for the Volvo brand name:

  1. Engage (and hopefully not annoy some) consumers by communicating with a verbal puzzle;
  2. Avoid a possible unfortunate enunciation and unintended meaning [warning, graphic Urban Dictionary definition, I just discovered] of the Volvo brand name; and/or
  3. Serious misunderstanding of trademark nominative fair use principles.

Other possible explanations?

And, how many of you believe overzealous lawyers are responsible for this unnecessary verbiage?

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.

Last August, I noted the irony of how one of the Friends, Ms. Aniston, appears to have been singled out from her co-star friends, despite their history of solidarity as a group, to serve as the primary marketing face on billboards in promoting viewership of Friends re-runs on television. Then, this month, the above revised billboard caught my attention since it is otherwise identical to prior Aniston billboards, with one key difference. For the past several weeks, Aniston billboards in the Twin Cities have not only promoted Friends, but they have leveraged other non-Friends programming on Channel 45 too.

So, given how often well-intending companies can misapprehend the scope of rights they have been licensed, and given how some are more inclined to ask for forgiveness than advance permission, at times, what I’m not inclined to assume is that Channel 45 obtained an advance license to expand the use of Ms. Aniston’s likeness and intellectual property for the additional purpose of promoting viewership of the Minnesota State High School Tournaments on Channel 45.

Since a good portion of the above billboard promotes more than viewership of Friends re-runs, I’m left wondering about the scope of Channel 45’s apparent license to use Ms. Aniston’s likeness.

Recognizing how carefully celebrities control the use of their likenesses, do you think Channel 45’s permission covered any use of Ms. Aniston’s likeness beyond promotion of Friends re-runs?

Do you agree, additional permission is required to run the above billboard?

If not, where would you draw the line?