Showing posts with label copyright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label copyright. Show all posts

Friday, February 6, 2015

Katy Perry Dubiously Claims to Own Copyright in Shark Costume from the Superbowl Halftime Show

During singer Katy Perry's performance at the halftime show at the 2015 Superbowl, a variety of amusing costumes depicting sharks and palm trees were used.  It is unclear who specifically designed these particular costumes.  Katy Perry has reportedly utilized Jeremy Scott as her costume designer.

Greenberg then fired off a formal cease and desist letter to, which had offered to sell shark figures that were based upon Katy Perry's costume design:

So let's scrutinize Katy's copyright claim a bit more...does U.S. intellectual property law really protect this shark costume?

Potentially, no.  The costume itself may very well be a "useful article" under U.S. Copyright law, and not protectable in the abstract, since its ornamental elements are not clearly "separable" from it.  Copyright protection is generally not available to articles which have a utilitarian function.

Under the Copyright Act, the only copyright protection available to these items is for "features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article."  Unfortunately for Ms. Perry, this test is inherently ambiguous when deciding the scope of copyright protection for certain useful articles, such as shark costumes.

Some distinctions are clear.  For instance, a painting on the side of a truck is protectable under copyright law even though the truck is a useful article. The painting is clearly separable from the utilitarian aspects of the truck.  The overall shape of the truck, on the other hand, would not be copyrightable since the shape is an essential part of the truck's utility.

Another commonly considered example is that of clothing.  The print found on the fabric of a skirt or jacket is copyrightable, since it exists separately from the utilitarian nature of the clothing. 

However, there is no copyright in the cut of the cloth, or the design of the skirt or jacket as a whole, since these articles are utilitarian.  This is true even of shark costumes; no copyright protection is granted to the costume as a whole.

That is because costumes, in addition to covering the body, serve a “decorative function,” so that the decorative elements of clothing are generally “intrinsic” to the overall function, rather than separable from it.  See Whimsicality, Inc. v. Rubie's Costume Co., 891 F.2d 452, 455 (2d Cir. 1989) (observing that garments' decorative elements are “particularly unlikely to meet [the] test” of conceptual separability); but see Chosun Int'l Inc. v. Chrisha Creations, Ltd., 413 F.3d 344 at 329 n. 3 (2nd Cir. 2005) (expressing skepticism that Halloween costumes that permit wearer “to masquerade” have a utilitarian function other than to portray appearance of article).

The idea for an upright “shark costume" is not an original copyrightable element, standing alone.  General character types are not protectable by copyright law.  See Hogan v. DC Comics, 48 F. Supp.2d 298, 310 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).

Further, as for a potential claim of "trade dress" or the tort of commercial "misappropriation," Ms. Perry would need to show that she is uniquely associated with this particular shark costume in consumers' minds.  While that is possible given the immense publicity and viewership that the Super Bowl halftime show receives, there are functionality issues there, as well.

Finally, below are photographs of a few similar shark costumes that appear to have been created and sold long before Katy Perry's costumes were created.  It is unknown if any of these designers successfully have claimed copyright or trade dress rights in their designs.  However, it would appear that the scope of Ms. Perry's intellectual  property rights, if any, would probably be quite narrow, if they exist at all:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Opening Pandora's Box: Supreme Court Allows Archaic Copyright Infringement Cases to Proceed

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.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jay-Z, Kanye West, Run D.M.C. and Others Sued for Past Sampling

Unauthorized "sampling" of catchy melodies used in modern music is heating up as a recurring legal issue.  

Several high-profile copyright cases have been filed in recent months against major performers, accusing them of taking a portion, or "sample," of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece, without authorization.

As discussed in detail on Wikipedia, sampling was originally developed by experimental musicians in the 1960's.  However, hip hop music was the first popular music genre based around the art of sampling - being born from 1970's DJs who experimented with manipulating vinyl on two turntables.

Sampling is now most often done today with a computer program. However, vinyl emulation software may also be used, and turntablists continue to sample using traditional methods.  The inclusion of sampling tools in modern digital production methods increasingly introduced sampling into many genres of popular music, as well as genres predating the invention of sampling, such as classical music, jazz and various forms of traditional music.

Several recent cases have been filed against established performers, premised on allegations that such activity constitutes a clear form of copyright infringement -- even when the alleged infringement occurred decades ago, and was only recently discovered.

It is likely that sophisticated software tools have allowed performers to go back and analyze musical catalogs to locate potential infringement that may have been harder to audibly detect with the "naked ear."

Jay-Z, Kanye West, Mark Wahlberg, Run D.M.C. and many others face a new copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Twilight Records and Syl-Zel Music which claim that the 1967 song "Different Strokes" that was performed and recorded by Syl Johnson was sampled without permission in a variety of derivative works in the 1990's.

According to the suit which was filed in federal district court in Chicago, Usher infringed upon the Different Strokes copyright with his 1993 song "Call Me a Mack," while Public Enemy allegedly made use of a copyrighted riff without authorization on multiple hit songs including Fight the Power.

Both Mark and Donnie Wahlberg are accused of sampling the same tunes on "The Last Song on Side B."  Run D.M.C. faces similar allegations for its songs "Naughty" and "Beats to the Rhyme."  All of the accused songs were released in the 1990's.

The Different Strokes melody has previously been the subject of similar litigation against more recent music performed by Jay-Z and Kanye West.  A lawsuit filed in 2011 had claimed that those performers improperly sampled the tune on their "Watch the Throne" album.  That suit was settled confidentially.

Putting aside the merits of the factual allegations, the latest cases may face an interesting legal problem.

The U.S. Copyright Act imposes a three year statute of limitations on civil copyright infringement claims from when the claim "accrued," barring a copyright owner from seeking damages for infringement that occurred in the past.

However, where alleged infringement is ongoing, federal courts have split on whether any bar applies, and whether the more flexible and equitable "estoppel by laches" defense should apply.

Furthermore, there is some dispute as to when the statute of limitations begins to run, given modern technology.  Usher's song "Call Me a Mack" was released in 1993, two decades ago.  However, the use of iTunes and cell tone ringtones have created a robust new marketplace for such a song.

Other courts have held that the doctrine does not apply in this context, because there is nothing in the text or legislative history of the U.S. Copyright Act that suggests that Congress ever intended for an equitable defense to apply.  It is unclear if the Supreme Court will resolve this split among the federal appeal courts on how to measure a purported delay.

Injunctions against further use of the song by these third parties could present a concern, but equally worrisome to these defendants is the fact that the copyright owner has sought an accounting for all past profits, as well as reimbursement of its' attorneys' fees.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part III)

Movie Poster for Van Helsing
The tagline for the 2004 movie Van Helsing was "Adventure Lives Forever." From an intellectual property perspective, it would appear that some fictional characters may try to live forever.

Trademark protection of a fictional character provides the owner with the exclusive right to use that character in connection with goods and services, as well as the right to prevent the unauthorized use of the character in connection with goods and services of infringing third parties.

The notion is that US trademark law serves to protect the public from confusion arising from confusingly similar marks.
But what about trademark law protecting the characteristics of fictional characters that are in the public domain as a matter of copyright law (e.g., Count Dracula or Sherlock Holmes)?  Theoretically, it would seem like trademark protection should not be available for any characters that are fully described in the public domain work. The reality is not that simple.

If a derivative character is developed, based upon the character described in public domain materials and is used in commerce, it is protectable as a trademark in its own right.

A concrete example is that the general features of Count Dracula are free to emulate because they are in the public domain, as the character was contained within Bram Stoker’s novel from 1897.  Stoker's book was loosely based upon the historical character of Vlad the Impaler.

Innumerable commercial variants of Stoker's Count Dracula were spawned in the century that followed, leading to a complex legal landscape.

General Mills' Count Chocula Cereal
For example, Count Chocula is a well-known, trademarked character developed by General Mills in 1971, in connection with breakfast cereals. Count Chocula is a highly stylized caricature of Count Dracula, made suitable for children. General Mills saw fit to register a federal trademark on the name and character, asserting that the design was for a character in the category of” supernatural, fictional or legendary characters; Paul Bunyan; Pied Piper; Robin Hood; Sherlock Holmes…etc.”

Consequently, a conundrum arises. If a third party were to develop a new design for a cereal that included a fictional character based entirely on the Count Dracula described in Bram Stoker’s public domain book, he may still be likely to cause consumer confusion with Count Chocula, and in doing so, violate General Mills' trademark. The strange outcome is that a character that should be free under copyright law to use, may not be so free under trademark law.

Along the same lines, Abraham Van Helsing was described in Stoker's Dracula novel. In 1994, actor Hugh Jackman played Van Helsing in a major motion picture.  In 2007, the United States Patent and Trademark Office officially allowed "VAN HELSING" to become eligible for a trademark on a wide variety of action figures, toys and games, and published that mark for opposition.

Yet another example is the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper has been a character fully described as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. The legendary figure had become fodder for nearly a dozen short stories written by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century.  Every one of these works has passed into the public domain, as a matter of US copyright law.
The Pied Piper Throughout History

Yet, Dell Publishing Company was able to successfully register "Pied Piper" for "a series of childrens' books" in 1981, a registration that continues to be in full force and effect on the Principal Register of the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Further complicating matters, as long as trademarks are used in commerce, they can be valid and enforced in perpetuity. That result means that hundreds of years after the text describing a fictional character has passed into the public domain, a company that develops a commercial character based on the public domain work, could still claim a successful monopoly.

Six hundred years after the Pied Piper was first described in published poems and books, an author could not write about him in a children's book today, as the Dell Publishing Company was able to receive a perpetual, federally registered trademark on his name for children's books.

As discussed in previous posts, it is not entirely clear that once a copyrighted work passes into the public domain, the fictional characters developed therein become entirely free for public consumption without legal controversy.

Indeed, related and derivative intellectual property rights can continue to muddy the waters, leading to complex and strange consequences. This situation occurs because the landscape of US intellectual property law is complex, and different regimes are designed to serve different purposes.

US copyright law protects the expression of ideas, but not the underlying ideas themselves. The notion is that a limited monopoly is granted on a tangible expression of an idea, in order to foster a robust environment for authors, painters and other creative endeavors in which they (and their heirs) are appropriately rewarded. Once that monopoly has lapsed, the underlying texts pass into the public domain, giving the public an opportunity to utilize a catalog of freely available works. For example, Mozart or Beethoven's music can generally be played by anyone without fear of a lawsuit by their heirs. William Shakespeare's plays can be reproduced or performed, without fear of paying a royalty.

Further, in literature, fictional characters within a literary work are presumed to be simply ideas unless they are sufficiently developed to legally constitute elements of expression protectable under copyright law.

However, US trademark law may protect the names, physical appearance, catchphrases, and certain other elements of fictional characters, provided that they are used on goods or services, identify and distinguish the source of the goods or services from those of others, and are either inherently distinctive or have acquired secondary meaning (i.e., meaning in the consuming public’s mind as a source identifier for the relevant goods or services).

In conclusion, as we have seen, just because a fictional character was once described in a text that has passed into the public domain as a matter of copyright law, does not end the inquiry. In fact, it is only the beginning, as related rights and derivative works, as well as trademark usage can affect the public's right to freely borrow from, adapt or use those fictional characters.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part II)

A previous post discussed litigation related to the current status of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's copyright claims to the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, given that several works had passed into the public domain as a matter of US copyright law.

Below is a further discussion about the power of US copyright law to protect fictional characters that have lapsed into the public domain, but which have been developed through subsequent film adaptations and through the creation of "derivative works."

These legal issues are best illustrated by the murky copyright status of the iconic characters in the Wizard of Oz.

In May 1900, author L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a fantasy children's novel that included illustrations by W.W. Denslow.  The book includes the familiar story describing how Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion traveled down the yellow brick road together to see the Wizard so Dorothy could return home. Notably, in the original 1900 text, Dorothy's slippers are silver.

Baum's seminal book was famously adapted to movie screens in the now iconic 1939 masterpiece film starring Judy Garland. This film made revolutionary use of Technicolor, which inspired a change to the color of Dorothy's slippers to ruby red.  Indeed, Dorothy's red slippers would later become enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, as a testament to the importance that this particular prop played in American culture.

Although the children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz lost its US copyright protection in 1956, only the original novel by Baum and illustrations by Denslow have entered the public domain.

However, all the later-created derivative works based on the novel are still eligible for independent copyright protection.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a "derivative work" as "[a] work based upon one or more preexisting works" or "[a] work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship."  Therefore, the 1939 film in which Dorothy wore ruby red slippers is a derivative work that is still protected by US copyright, valuable rights currently held by Warner Brothers.

Slight differences between the public domain novel and the still-copyrighted movie are not an academic issue to those seeking to make any adaptation of the Wizard of Oz plotline without a license from Warner Brothers.  And that includes Disney.

Indeed, just last week, Disney aired a brand new adaptation of the original Wizard of Oz called the Wizard of Dizz.  In this version, Mickey Mouse and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse troupe are recast as the characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with Minnie Mouse as Dorothy, and Professor Von Drake as the Wizard.

While the Disney adaptation is potentially protected free speech as a form of parody, a subtle but important detail is the fact that the ruby red slippers worn by Minnie Mouse are replaced by green shoes.

Was this detail an act of literary license on Disney's part, or part of a clever legal strategy to avoid a claim of copyright infringement? 

In their most recent squabbles over this issue, Warner Brothers took the legal position that the characters from the film had so altered public perception, that virtually ANY unauthorized use of the characters would violate the film studio's copyright.

Subsequently, additional unauthorized renditions including Oz the Great and Powerful starring James Franco, stirred up even more controversy, as Disney riled Warner Brothers by filing for trademarks on that name.

In conclusion, when fictional characters are first described in a text that falls into the public domain, the status of the original copyright does not necessarily make these characters free for the public to use without license.

Further, in Part III, we will discuss how trademarks and trade dress can theoretically create a perpetual "brand" surrounding a character that otherwise would be in the public domain as a matter of copyright law.