Showing posts with label fame. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fame. Show all posts

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Van Halen Sues Drummer's Ex-Wife for Commercializing Her Married Name

Van Halen was formed in California in 1972, and named after lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen. Other members of the band have included Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie's son) on bass guitar, as well as David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony.

In 1984, drummer Alex Van Halen married Kelly Carter, who legally changed her name to Kelly Van Halen. Twelve years later, the couple divorced, but Kelly kept her married name.

More recently, Kelly started a construction and interior design company under her married name. Kelly applied for several federal trademark registrations for "KELLY VAN HALEN" on products such as chairs, children's blankets, bathing suits, building construction and interior design.

ELVH, Inc., the holding company that owns the band's intellectual property, has now sued her in federal district court in California, alleging that her use of the name "VAN HALEN" as a trade name is likely to cause confusion, dilute the fame of the VAN HALEN trademarks, and unfairly compete with the band.

It also alleges that Kelly Van Halen's use of the trade name is on goods and services that are "either identical to or closely related to the goods sold by" the band.  (It is unclear when the band ever sold furniture or offered any form of construction or interior design services, but I suspect that they have not and this is only a matter of posturing).

The Hollywood Reporter notes correctly that the legal question here is whether senior family name users like Eddie and Alex can permanently enjoin junior family name users like Kelly from using "Van Halen" in a commercial enterprise. 

Courts are often reluctant to enjoin individuals from using their own legal names to identify themselves in trade or commerce, unless the use was clearly likely to cause confusion, or if the junior family member had previously agreed to cease such use.

For example, in 2007, design house Paul Frank Industries, Inc. had sued its namesake and former designer Paul Frank Sunich after he had left the company and began to use his full name to sell competing products.

In that case, the court held that "under trademark law, there is no absolute right to use one's own personal name where that use would be confusingly similar to an established use of a famous mark that the public has come to associate with another source...Mr. Sunich...has no absolute right to make use of his name in a manner that would be confusingly similar..."

However, the Court went on to clarify that "Mr. Sunich, however, is entitled under trademark law to use his name in other contexts, commercial and otherwise, to identify himself 
and inform others about his work.  [There is] no right to prevent Mr. Sunich and the other Defendants from using Mr. Sunich's full name in contexts were such use will not result in any confusion with PFI's use of the Paul Frank mark."

In that case, Sunich's websites had prominently displayed disclaimers informing customers that the products were not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by PFI.  However, his further sale of T-shirts was prohibited by the Court.

Courts are therefore often willing to draw difficult lines in order to be fair to both parties, and will put the burden on the trademark owner to actually prove that there is a likelihood of consumer confusion.  If confusion can be demonstrated, the accused may be held in contempt of Court for violating the Court's order.

Further, the Hollywood Reporter astutely notes that "the outcome might depend on whether it can be shown that Kelly had intent to trade upon the goodwill or reputation of the famous band's moniker."

While that fact would not be dispositive, if it can be show that Kelly was deliberately attempting to benefit from the band's fame, that could present a problem for her continued use.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fashionable Parodies: Where Does Free Speech End and Dilution Begin?

Where does First Amendment-protected parody end, and trademark dilution and/or infringement begin?

As was mentioned in the WWD article, and has been commented on in fashion blogs such as Stylecaster and Refinery29, I explained that there are two separate legal theories at play here, functioning against the backdrop of the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.

I also explained that these cases are highly fact specific and often depend on both the particular sensibilities of the brand involved, and the message being conveyed.

Likelihood of Confusion:  The first legal test is fairly straightforward, that is, would the ordinarily prudent consumer, when confronted with the accused item, likely believe that it originated from, was sponsored or endorsed by, someone else?  For example, would a prospective consumer confronted with one of Brian Lichtenberg's "FELINE" t-shirts (depicted left), believe that fashion brand Celine was behind it?

Dilution:  The second legal question is, assuming purely for argument's sake that there was NOT a serious likelihood of consumer confusion, is there still a likelihood that a famous brand will be diluted, either through tarnishment or through "blurring" of its ability to continue to function as a trademark?

In other words, the law holds that a famous brand can be diluted, even in the absence of any consumer confusion, if the famous brand is called to mind and tarnished.

An example of a case where federal courts found that harm to the famous Coca Cola brand was indeed likely from tarnishment include the famous "ENJOY COCAINE" poster.  

In that 1972 case which was decided decades before the Federal Anti-Dilution statute was passed by Congress, a New York court held that "to associate such a noxious substance as cocaine with plaintiff's wholesome beverage as symbolized by its "Coca-Cola" trademark and format would clearly have a tendency to impugn that product and injure plaintiff's business reputation, as plaintiff contends."

This holding has long suggested that a key part of the inquiry should focus on whether there is a salacious quality to the parody that injures the brand.

The First Amendment:  However, there is a third critical issue which is the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Courts have long held that commercial activities do not fall within the "core" of political speech that the Founding Fathers intended. Consequently, commercial conduct can be more regulated than purely political speech.

Because the sale of a t-shirt with a parody logo emblazoned on it could function as a form of "speech," the first question looks to what exactly is being communicated by the intent of the parody, and is that message being effectively communicated?

In the case of Brian Lichtenberg's "FELINE" shirts, the shirt clearly is designed to call Celine's brand to mind, but it isn't really clear what the message is.  Merely "mocking" an established brand is not necessarily sufficiently political an act to warrant free speech protection.  Otherwise, the "ENJOY COCAINE" t-shirt would have been protected, and it wasn't.
Not all courts have found that a protected parody requires a clear political "message."

In a 2007 case, Louis Vuitton lost an attempt to stop a small company from selling "CHEWY VUITON" dog toys.  

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia affirmed the dismissal of that case, holding that:  "[a] parody must convey two simultaneous -- and contradictory -- messages:  that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody.  This second message must not only differentiate the alleged parody from the original but also must communicate some articulable element of satire, ridicule, joking or amusement."  (emphasis added).

The Chewy Vuiton dog toy was not shown to be causing any form of consumer confusion, but was clearly designed to call Louis Vuitton's famous trademark to mind, and mock it.  There was no clear political message, but the absurdity of the item itself functioned as a mockery of the high end luxury brand.

Further, in part because a chewy dog toy is not a salacious item, there was really no "tarnishment" of the brand.  Ultimately, the parody was obvious to the observer, leaving Louis Vuitton without any form of legal remedy.  Indeed, the Chewy Vuiton dog toys are still available for sale on Amazon, and Louis Vuitton seems to have survived.

More troubling for Lichtenberg, however, might be his t-shirt mocking Cartier with "CANNABIS."  (seen left)

Cartier would seem to have a valid claim of dilution, as per the 1972 ENJOY COCAINE decision.

The key legal questions are fact specific: Will the particular parody cause confusion? If not, will it dilute the brand through tarnishment or blur the trademark's ability to function? And finally, will the public's right to freedom of speech trump the brand owner's perceived offense?

So, in conclusion, clever parodies of famous designers are certainly not new, and courts have long struggled with balancing the public's right in free expression, with the brand owner's right to protect its image.