This week, the U.S. Supreme Court opened Pandora's Box.
The decision that the Supreme Court may come to regret involved a copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding the script to the movie Raging Bull, which was released in 1980. In the film, Oscar-award winning actor Robert DeNiro played boxer Jake LaMotta.
An heir to the co-author of a 1963 screenplay about the life of the boxer apparently waited until 2009 to file a copyright lawsuit, claiming that the 1980 movie had copied portions of her father's screenplay without authorization.
The District Court in Los Angeles and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the equitable doctrine of "estoppel by laches," borrowing the 3-year statute of limitations in the U.S. Copyright Act. Those Courts both found that the writer's heir had deliberately waited to file suit, prejudicing MGM which had released the film thirty-four years ago.
However, on Monday, in an unusual 6-3 split not along ideological lines, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, finding that the significant delay will not bar the heir from seeking damages or an injunction on a rolling basis, going forward.
The majority reasoned that each time a new Raging Bull DVD is printed and sold, there is a new independent act of copyright infringement potentially violating the heir's copyrights. Every new DVD that is printed, every time the film is broadcast on television or the film is re-mastered or re-released, is effectively a new act of infringement subject to the 3-year window going forward, not backward.
The end result is that copyright disputes that originated thirty or forty years ago -- or even in the more distant past -- can be resurrected and instituted now.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts dissented, holding that the precedent would upset settled doctrine, and open up years of litigation over old wounds.
70-year old Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and others in Led Zeppelin presumably agree with the dissent's point of view.
In 1971, Zeppelin released the now iconic "Stairway to Heaven." According to some estimates, the song has earned at least $562 million since its release, a number poised to rise higher since Zeppelin is set to release new versions of its albums this summer.
Relying on Monday's Raging Bull decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Time magazine reports that a new copyright infringement lawsuit has now been filed by representatives of the band Spirit, which released an instrumental song "Taurus" in 1968. According to the newly-filed lawsuit, Zeppelin opened for Spirit in the late 1960's, and was inspired to write the now famous guitar introduction to Stairway.
Direct evidence of copying may nonetheless be difficult to gather. Spirit's lead guitarist Randy California died in 1997 and documents showing copying, if any, were presumably lost to the mists of time.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Sunday, November 24, 2013
|Screenshot from GoldieBlox's website|
A progressively-themed company that makes and sells toys that will supposedly help young girls overcome gender stereotypes has become embroiled in a high-profile copyright litigation with the Beastie Boys. Toy company GoldieBlox says on its website:
"In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math...and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they've been considered "boys' toys". By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers."
In its recent viral video commercial touting the ingenuity of young girls who build an elaborate contraption that can change the television channel, GoldieBlox intentionally utilized the music and parodied the lyrics from the Beastie Boys' song Girls.
The Beastie Boys were apparently not pleased with GoldieBlox's unauthorized use and sent a cease and desist letter, alleging copyright infringement and demanding that GoldieBlox end its campaign.
Rather than complying with the demands, GoldieBlox countered by filing a Declaratory Judgment Complaint against the Beastie Boys in Los Angeles federal district court, asserting that its usage was parody and fully protected by the First Amendment.
Given the Beastie Boys' recent unhappy experience with copyright litigation, one suspects that GoldieBlox's executives were well aware that this dispute would erupt, and intentionally developed a strategy inducing litigation to fuel its viral campaign to garner "free" publicity. Whether the gambit works or not is yet to be seen.
Legally, the controlling analysis here is the Supreme Court's decision in 1994 in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., interpreting the "fair use" defense to musical parodies used in a commercial context.
In that case, the members of the rap music group 2 Live Crew had created a parody of Roy Orbison's iconic "Pretty Woman," called "Big Hairy Woman." Roy Orbison's estate sued the rap group, alleging that the group's use was not fair or protected free speech, but was an unprotected commercial use.
After years of litigation, the Supreme Court ultimately held that 2 Live Crew's commercial parody may very well be a fair use within the meaning of § 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which states:
"In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."
On appeal, the Supreme Court found the aforementioned four factors must each be applied to every situation on a case by case basis, and that the fact that the parody was used in a commercial context alone was not dispositive.
When looking at the purpose and character of 2 Live Crew's use, the Supreme Court found that the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of the other three factors. The court found that, in any event, a work's commercial nature is only one element of the first factor enquiry into its purpose and character.
Justice Souter, writing for the majority of the Court, then moved onto the second § 107 factor, "the nature of the copyrighted work", finding it has little merit in resolving this and other parody cases, since the artistic value of parodies is often found in their ability to invariably copy popular works of the past.
The Court found the third factor integral to the analysis, finding that the
Ninth Sixth Circuit Court of
Appeals had erred in holding that, as a matter of law, 2 Live Crew copied "excessively" from the Orbison original.
Justice Souter reasoned that the "amount and substantiality" of the portion used by 2 Live Crew was reasonable in relation to the band's purpose in creating a parody of "Pretty Woman".
The majority reasoned "even if 2 Live Crew's copying of the original's first line of lyrics and characteristic opening bass riff may be said to go to the original's 'heart,' that heart is what most readily conjures up the song for parody, and it is the heart at which parody takes aim."
The Supreme Court then looked to the new work as a whole, finding that 2 Live Crew thereafter departed markedly from the Orbison lyrics, producing otherwise distinctive music.
Looking at the final factor, the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in finding a presumption or inference of market harm.
Parodies in general, the Court said, will rarely substitute for the original work, since the two works serve different market functions.
While Acuff-Rose found evidence of a potential "derivative" rap market in the very fact that 2 Live Crew recorded a rap parody of "Oh, Pretty Woman" and another rap group sought a license to record a rap derivative, the Supreme Court found no evidence that a potential rap market was harmed in any way by 2 Live Crew's parodic rap version.
In fact, the Supreme Court found that it was unlikely that any artist would find parody a lucrative derivative market, noting that artists "ask for criticism, but only want praise."
Applying this same analysis in the newly-filed Beastie Boys case, the courts will need to evaluate each of these same factors to determine if Goldiblox's usage was appropriate or improper.
In the meantime, the GoldieBlox commercial has gone viral, and received nearly 8 million views.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Self-help guru Napoleon Hill once wrote that "procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday." A number of parties involved in a trademark dispute in the state of Washington may agree with that statement more than they would care to.
According to recent reports, when Jesse Skittrall purchased the small Absolut Hair and Makeup salon in Everett, Washington in 2009, he was informed by Gayle Pratt, the former owner of the salon, that Vodka giant Absolut had sent a formal cease and desist letter in 2005, but didn't follow up on its demand that the salon change its name.
Consequently, Pratt evidently concluded that the matter was not being pursued by the vodka maker, and the hair salon management changed hands.
However, at the end of July 2013, the vodka maker finally followed up, and reportedly gave Skittrall until January 1, 2014 -- 6 months -- to completely change the salon's name, or else face a federal lawsuit for trademark infringement.
Skittrall has appealed to the community to raise money, and appeared on local radio stations, complaining that the vodka company had "come out of nowhere."
On GoFundMe.com, Skittrall apparently seeks as much as $20,000 to fund the name change, but as of today, has raised only $125. It is not clear why it would cost $20,000 for the business to change its name, but the salon would obviously need new signage, a new website and new business cards.
|The Vodka Maker's Trademark|
On the crowd funding site, Skittrall claims that "I bought the business with this name and existing signage and was not aware of any trademark issues."
But the former owner disputes Skittrall's characterization, saying that she fully informed him of the unresolved trademark dispute back in 2009.
But what of the vodka maker's apparent delay in following up?
Precedent from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Washington, lays out a clear duty for a trademark owner to act diligently once it has sent a cease and desist letter that has become unresolved.
Otherwise, the trademark owner might face the possibility that its delay in protecting its rights may rise to the level of being "estopped by laches." The doctrine is sometimes just referred to as "laches," which comes from the French for "laziness."
The Latin phrase "Vigilantibus non dormientibus æquitas subvenit (Equity aids the vigilant, not the sleeping ones (that is, those who sleep on their rights))" is often quoted to help explain the doctrine.
In other words, the vodka maker's delay in pursuing the 2005 matter against the hair salon could have led the former and new owners to reasonably infer that the alcohol beverage company had lost interest in protecting its rights in this instance.
To the extent that the salon owners relied upon that delay to their detriment and suffered prejudice, courts may hold that delay against the trademark owner, not the salon.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had said in Brookfield Communications v. West Coast Entertainment in 1999:
"Although we have applied laches to bar trademark infringement claims, we have done so only where the trademark holder knowingly allowed the infringing mark to be used without objection for a lengthy period of time. See E–Systems, Inc. v. Monitek, Inc., 720 F.2d 604, 607 (9th Cir.1983). In E–Systems, for example, we estopped a claimant who did not file suit until after the allegedly infringing mark had been used for eight years where the claimant had known of the infringing use for at least six years. See id.; see also Carter–Wallace, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co.,434 F.2d 794, 803 (9th Cir.1970). We specifically cautioned, however, that “had defendant's encroachment been minimal, or its growth slow and steady, there would be no laches.” E–Systems, 720 F.2d at 607; accord Carter–Wallace, 434 F.2d at 803 n. 4."
In this case, the delay would appear to be from 2005 to 2013: approximately eight years. There is no clear evidence of progressive encroachment, as the local hair salon appears to be largely the same as it was in 2005, despite having new management.
Furthermore, Washington's statute of limitations may also apply here, which enforces a three year statute of limitations to trade name disputes.
Consequently, the vodka maker may face a problem if the hair salon simply refuses to change its name, and invokes these doctrines in its defense.
The lingering problem for the salon, of course, is that estoppel by laches is a defense that can only be asserted in a lengthy court proceeding, after factual discovery has been exchanged. And invoking such equitable defenses obviously costs time and money, and litigation comes with no guarantees.
In conclusion, had all the parties more clearly resolved their original dispute back in 2005, more costly headaches for all involved might have been avoided.