On July 27, Melissane Velyvis successfully argued that a Domestic Violence Protective Order (the Order) was an unconstitutional prior restraint on her freedom of expression. Marin County Superior Court Judge Roy O. Chernus sustained Velyvis’ demurrer to a misdemeanor complaint brought against her for violating the Order in People v. Velyvis, Case No. CR211376A.

The Order prohibited Ms. Velyvis from posting anything on social media, blogs, or the internet regarding her ex-husband, Dr. John Velyvis, or his children. Dr. Velyvis applied for an order to curb posts on Ms. Velyvis’ blog, The Voice of Melissane Velyvis, which detailed the domestic abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of Dr. Velyvis, and other events leading up to and resulting from the couple’s divorce. The blog describes Ms. Velyvis as a “survivor of non-fatal strangulation.”


Continue Reading Blogger’s Descriptions of Domestic Violence Protected by Freedom of Expression

On December 6, a federal jury in the Central District of California found that Tesla CEO Elon Musk did not defame cave diver Vernon Unsworth by referring to him in a tweet as “pedo guy.” Unsworth v. Musk, No. 2:18-cv-08048 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 6, 2019). Unsworth, who helped rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018, alleged that a series of tweets Musk published to his nearly 30 million Twitter followers were defamatory, falsely accused Mr. Unsworth of being a pedophile and child rapist, and caused Unsworth worldwide damage to his reputation and emotional distress. The jury deliberated for less than one hour before finding in favor of Musk.

During a CNN interview following the 2018 rescue, Unsworth had criticized Musk’s showing up to the cave site with a mini-submarine as a “PR stunt,” and said that the mini-submarine “had absolutely no chance of working” to save the boys. Unsworth’s complaint alleged that Musk retaliated against this criticism with a series of defamatory tweets and a series of defamatory emails sent to a Buzzfeed News reporter.


Continue Reading Does Elon Musk’s Defamation Defense Verdict Spell “Open Season” for Social Media Insults? Answer: Nope.

Lettuce Turnip the Beet: When puns are “functional”

In LTTB LLC v. Redbubble, Inc., plaintiff LTTB, an online apparel company, contended its success was “largely due to public fascination with its Lettuce Turnip the Beet trademark,” and alleged that defendant Redbubble’s sale of products featuring the phrase “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” infringed its mark, 18-cv-00509-RS. Redbubble, an online marketplace selling products made by independent artists, argued that LTTB was not entitled to preclude others from using the “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” pun absent any evidence of source confusion. On July 12, 2019, the Northern District of California issued its decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendant Redbubble, finding that LTTB did not have an exclusive right to sell products displaying the pun “Lettuce Turnip the Beet,” and that LTTB therefore did not have a viable trademark infringement claim.

The court’s decision turned on its application of the “aesthetic functionality doctrine,” a controversial trademark law principle unevenly applied by federal courts. See McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 7:80 (5th ed.). Under the aesthetic functionality doctrine, when goods are bought largely for their aesthetic value, their features may be functional – if a feature is an important ingredient in the commercial success of the product, the interest in free competition permits its imitation in the absence of a patent or copyright. See Pagliero v. Wallace China Co., 198 F.2d 339 (9th Cir. 1952). The issue in LTTB was whether LTTB had a viable infringement claim where the alleged infringing products merely displayed the pun “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” and did not otherwise include any indication that they were produced by LTTB. In other words, was the pun “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” a functional feature permitting imitation? The LTTB court explained that while the Ninth Circuit’s modern application of the “aesthetic functionality” doctrine has been more limited, the circumstances of the LTTB case “undeniably” called for the application of the aesthetic functionality doctrine.


Continue Reading That’s So Punny! Trademark Rights in Puns and Wordplay