Fair use is a trademark concept as well

Ninth Circuit finds trademark fair use of name of online music site.

Webceleb is a “social marketplace for independent music.” It sued several defendants over the use of the term “web celeb” in connection with a television show award category and a section of an entertainment website. Defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the award of summary judgment.

The court held that defendants’ use of the term “web celeb” was a classic fair use because:

  • the use of the mark was not a trademark use;
  • the use was fair and in good faith; and
  • the use was only descriptive

There was no trademark use because the term “web celeb” (at least according to the court) is “common parlance” for internet celebrities, which was what the award category was intended to recognize. And the use of “web celeb” in connection with the electronic magazine was merely descriptive of the online magazine’s content. The use was in good faith, as the evidence showed defendants were unaware of plaintiff’s mark when they created the “straightforward, descriptive title.”

The court came close to blaming the plaintiff for its own trademark woes:

Any minimal confusion here is the “risk the plaintiff accepted when it decided to identify its product with a mark that uses a well known descriptive phrase.” (Citing KP Permanent Make–Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 543 U.S. 111, 121–22 (2004))

That should serve as an instruction to all trademark adopters: While descriptive marks may do a good job of conveying information about a product, for the same reason the trademark owner may not enjoy as much protected exclusivity in the mark.

Webceleb, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co., 2014 WL 448648 (9th Cir. February 5, 2014)

No copyright protection for two word phrase

quipIn a final pretrial order, plaintiff stated that “to this day [defendant] persists in using [plaintiff’s] copyrighted ‘usurpassed performance’ language on its packages.” Defendant filed a motion in limine (a motion to exclude evidence) to preclude plaintiff from introducing evidence or putting on testimony that would infer or suggest the phrase “unsurpassed performance” has been registered as a copyright.

The court granted the motion.

Under the Copyright Act, “[w]ords and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans” are not subject to copyright. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(a). The court looked to a number of cases in which short phrases had been denied copyright protection. For example, other courts had held that “Where Words Come Alive,” “Earth Protector,” “Chipper,” and “Retail Plus” were not copyrightable material.

One wonders whether plaintiff was really trying to assert some form of unfair competition or trademark infringement. The notion is worth entertaining for but a brief moment, till one realizes that laudatory phrases such as “unsurpassed performance” find no protection under trademark law either.

Predator International, Inc. v. Gamo Outdoor USA, Inc., 2014 WL 321069 (D.Colo. January 29, 2014)

The trademark and right of publicity woes of having a cryptocurrency named after you

Not too surprisingly, Kanye West’s lawyers have demanded the developers of the Coinye West cryptocurrency not use his name. The somewhat obnoxious letter shows that Kanye’s lawyers are asserting, among other things, trademark infringement and right of publicity misappropriation.

Russell Brandom at the Verge observes that “[o]nce the code is public, the original coders will be unable to prevent its use, forcing West’s legal team to prosecute every instance of Coinye individually.”

That observation raises a couple of interesting points. The first one is more of a clarification — once the code is in the wild, we should assume Kanye would only care to stop the use of his name, and would not seek (nor have any basis upon which) to stop anyone from using the code.

Stopping users of a cryptocurrency from using the name of that cryptocurrency could be a bit tough. Kanye’s lawyer threatens to “purse all legal remedies against any business that accepts the purported COINYE WEST currency.”

Infringement and misappropriation both depend on a use of the offending term in a commercial way. But users of the decentralized system, and the vendors who accept that currency, are not providers of any goods or services onto which Kanye’s identity will be attached. If one is merely using the currency as a tool, it’s hard to see how that’s any different from implicating the rights of the historical figures who appear on paper currency. So might it all be about the Benjamins? Maybe not at all.

Court considers Yelp posting as evidence of potential consumer confusion in trademark case

Posting by confused consumer was not hearsay.

You Fit, Inc. v. Pleasanton Fitness, LLC, 2013 WL 521784 (M.D.Fla. February 11, 2013)

In a trademark case between competing health clubs, the court considered a Yelp posting in entering a preliminary injunction, finding that while the anonymous posts were not conclusive evidence of actual confusion, they were indicative of potential consumer confusion.

The dispute centered over the use of “You Fit” and “Fit U” for health clubs. A Yelp user posted the following:

I am soo [sic] confused. I was a member at Youfit in [Arizona] and when I moved back to [California] I saw this place by my house and thought great my gym is here! When I went into the gym, I realized it was called Fit U. They use the same basic color scheme on their sign and the motto seemed the same. When I asked the girl at the desk, … [she] said her owner created this brand. I said what are you [ sic ] rates? Seemed very similar to me as when I was a member at Youfit. Very confusing and a big let down.

The court rejected defendant’s hearsay argument. It noted that affidavits and hearsay materials which would not be admissible evidence for a permanent injunction may be considered if the evidence is appropriate given the character and objectives of the injunctive proceeding. With no analysis as to why, the court found the Yelp posting appropriate to consider at this stage of the case.

Moreover, the court observed in a footnote that the Yelp post was not hearsay to begin with. It was not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but to demonstrate the consumer’s confusion — a then-existing mental state of the declarant, which is an exception to the hearsay rule. This is an interesting finding. The hearsay and non-hearsay uses of the post both turn on the same content, particularly the statement “I am soo [sic] confused.” That statement is the matter asserted (and in such capacity, excludable hearsay). And it is also the mindset of the declarant (and in such capacity, subject to an exception to the hearsay rule).

The court’s opinion does not address what one might see as the real problem with the Yelp evidence — its authenticity. Perhaps the parties did not bring that up. But one does not have to venture far in imagination to see how a crafty plaintiff could generate, or direct the generation, of self-serving social media content that would be helpful as evidence in a litigated matter.

See also: Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

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