Showing posts with label defenses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label defenses. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Delay in Resolving ABSOLUT Trademark Dispute Raises Thorny Issues

The Everett, Washington hair salon's name/logo
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, 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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 Invitation to Slander or Free Speech?

While online defamation has existed since the Internet was first made accessible as a public computer network, the threat presented by such libelous content has been exacerbated by the advance of the Internet as an everyday reporting and social media tool.

The rise of websites such as, which openly encourage readers to post defamatory content about both public and private individuals, has raised very thorny legal and socio-political issues about defamation and bullying, and are testing the outer limits of free speech in an online world.  

Specifically, call itself:  "Public Service personal news." It "reports" not only on public figures engaging in public activity (e.g., WIll Smith slapping an overly affectionate reporter); it also reports on private individuals, allowing writers to call them "home wreckers," "army sluts" who "sleep around with married men," "racists," "meth-heads," "drunks," and the like.

The Legal Difficulties With Proving Online Defamation

Much of the difficulty that surrounds successfully winning an online defamation case is brought about because the plaintiff must first prove who the publisher or writer of the statement is and, secondly, that the statements were factually and objectively false and written with the intention of causing damage, and not just reflecting a subjective opinion.

Generally, the elements that must be proved to establish defamation are a publication to one other than the person defamed; a false statement of fact that is understood as being of and concerning the plaintiff; and tending to harm the reputation of plaintiff.  If the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she must also prove actual malice.
Therefore, since truth is an absolute defense to any defamation case, a plaintiff who purports to have been defamed and injured opens himself up to a wide berth of discovery into his otherwise private conduct.

Further, identifying a specific individual that has posted a defamatory comment online can prove difficult.  It is possible to geolocate a computer that was used to publish a statement or post content online through the use of geolocation.

However, with Internet access offered anonymously in Internet cafes, libraries, businesses, and other public areas, this can make it difficult to find the true source of the illegal content.

Legislative Solutions

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was created in a bid to combat indecent as well as defamatory content found on websites and online publications.

Section 230 of the CDA attempts to legislatively address an Internet Service Provider's liability to content that is stored on its servers.  Although it does not specifically address all possible circumstances, it does broadly provide that an ISP is not legally held responsible for the information published by their users unless and until they are informed of any specific infringement; at that point, the ISP should act to remove the content or face legal action themselves.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 can be viewed in full at the FCC website:

Some commentators have suggested that the online world has evolved dramatically since the CDA was passed in 1996, and that it is due for an overhaul.  What do you think?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who Owns Police "Mug Shots"?

Unless you are John Gotti or Robert Downey, Jr., if you have ever been arrested and had your police "mugshot" taken during routine booking procedures, you may find yourself staying up at night worrying about where that mugshot may someday end up. 

Depending on your level of notoriety, websites such as and are giving some people good reason to worry about just that. calls itself a “search engine for Official Law Enforcement records, specifically booking photographs." While focuses on historical and "high profile" figures, some websites have been accused of "extortion" and "blackmail" for publishing mugshots of wholly private individuals who were -- at some point in their lives -- accused of crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to armed robbery.  Some of these sites will offer to remove your mugshot, for a fee of course.

Putting aside the thorny privacy issues involved, an intellectual property question has been raised:  "Are these mugshots in the public domain?"

The answer from an intellectual property practitioner's perspective is that mug shots are not necessarily in the public domain, and third party websites do not possess an automatic exemption from infringing otherwise validly owned federal copyrights.

According to the website, "originally collected and distributed by Law Enforcement agencies, Booking records are considered and legally recognized as public records, in the public domain." That site claims that it "republishes these Official Records in their original form ("as is") under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the freedom to publish true and factual information. Our intent is to provide a legitimate and useful service for both the private and public sectors." goes on to say that "all information on the mugshot pages on was originated [sic] with law enforcement agencies.  We publish the information "as is" and do not edit it."

There are several serious flaws with these legal arguments.

After 1976, the Copyright Act provided that copyright attaches automatically upon the creation of an original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. After 1976, copyright protection is automatic and vests instantly in the photographer.

Therefore, after 1976, when a police officer or civilian photographer stood behind a camera and snapped a mugshot, it is that photographer who technically owned the copyright in the image the very instant it was created in tangible form.  Before that, much stricter copyright notice requirements applied, forcing many photographs published without notice into the public domain.

Elvis Presley in a 1956 mugshot/
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
If the photographer was an employee of the U.S. federal government, then the legal analysis ends.  The U.S. federal government has openly disclaimed any and all copyright ownership in its documents, including mugshots.  Therefore, such mugshots, once released, are freely in the public domain for copyright purposes, and can be reproduced, altered or used in any form without violating federal copyright laws.  (It is worth noting that a federal appeals court recently ruled that there is no Freedom of Information Act obligation for the feds to release mugshots).

However, thousands of the mugshots that appear on these sites appear to have been taken by photographers that were employed by state and local police and sheriff’s departments, and who took the photographs in the course of their duties.

In those cases, the individual photographers who took the mugshots presumably entered into an employment agreement assigning ownership of the photographic work product to their employers.  So whatever copyright inhered in the mugshots when they were first taken by the photographer would be assigned to the police department or municipality.

Further, each local municipality and police department has its own laws, policies, regulations dictating who now owns copyrights to the mugshots, and who can use or distribute them, and for what purpose.

Some local jurisdictions take the approach that mugshots are valuable to law enforcement only during ongoing investigations, and restrict access to them until the case is resolved.  Others take a more open approach similar to the federal government, and waive any copyrights they might otherwise have owned in these images, regardless of how they are subsequently used or exploited.  Others go even farther, and encourage the public viewing of these images as a deterrent.

So, if a local police department has not otherwise waived its copyrights to the mugshots, as a technical matter, for a website to display, reproduce them or alter them for commercial gain would likely constitute a prima facie case of copyright infringement.

Indeed, it is worth noting that such a site would arguably infringe upon every single aspect of the copyright statute – the right to display, reproduce and even modify/alter the images. For example, despite its own claim that the images are reproduced verbatim from government files, it appears that every single mugshot on contains an embedded watermark, which was obviously added later.  Such conduct could violate the federally-recognized copyrights of local police departments which have not otherwise disclaimed their copyrights in and to control how these images are altered or used to create derivative works.

What about Fair Use?

Fair use is a defense to infringement, not an automatic exemption.  Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States described fair use as an affirmative defense in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.  This means that, in litigation involving allegations of copyright infringement, the defendant squarely bears the burden of raising and proving that his use was "fair" and not an unauthorized infringement. Thus, fair use need not even be raised as a defense unless the plaintiff first shows (or the defendant concedes) a "prima facie" case of copyright infringement.  If the work was not copyrightable, if the term had expired, or the defendant's work borrowed only a very small amount, for instance, then the plaintiff cannot even make out a prima facie case of infringement, and the defendant need not even raise a fair use defense. However, as discussed above, a prima facie case of copyright infringement could theoretically be asserted by a municipality or police department that had not otherwise waived its copyright to control the commercial exploitation of these images.  Whether or not such a case will ever be filed is currently unknown.

Unfortunately, for those arrested for disorderly conduct outside a bar twenty years ago, and who were mortified to discover their faces displayed on a commercial website and want to demand legal action under intellectual property laws, you will have to wait.  Under current federal copyright law, you probably don't have standing to sue on behalf of the copyright holders.