Copyrights and Trademarks

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York recently dismissed a claim of copyright infringement against Mic Network, Inc. over its use of a partial screenshot of a New York Post article in a subsequent publication. The screenshot featured a photograph of a man in a bar, with the caption “Why I won’t date hot women anymore” on one side and a selection of the article’s text on the other. The Court found Mic’s use of the screenshot was protected by the fair use defense.

The case arose when photographer Stephen Yang sued Mic for copyright infringement over Mic’s use of the photograph Yang licensed to the New York Post for its April 2017 article, which recounted the dating experience of a man living in New York. The article created a great deal of buzz on social media and provoked heated debate and substantial criticism because of its provocative content.

In response to this debate, Mic published its own article, “Twitter is skewering the ‘New York Post’ for a piece on why a man ‘won’t date hot women,‘” which featured the screenshot, including a portion of Yang’s photograph. Yang sued for copyright infringement over Mic’s use of his photograph. Mic responded with a motion to dismiss Yang’s claim on the grounds its use of the photograph was protected by the fair use doctrine. (As evidenced by its title, Mic’s article discussed and added to the criticism surrounding the original article.)


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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.


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Supermodel Jelena Noura “Gigi” Hadid was not the first celebrity to be photographed by paparazzi and then to post the resulting photo to social media, nor was she the first to be subsequently sued for copyright infringement for doing so. Other celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez and, most recently, Victoria Beckham, have made news for the same situation.

This trend falls into an interesting intersection of two significant tenets of law: a celebrity’s right of publicity in their own image and a photographer’s right to copyright their artistic work. The district court dismissed the case due to a lack of a copyright registration. In addition to that defense, though, her attorneys also raised the defenses of fair use and implied license. The second may have begun paving the way for future legal challenges to clarify these issues by raising a novel argument—implied license—alongside the more typical defense of fair use.


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On April 23, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s finding that Anastasia, Beverly Hills, Inc., a cosmetics company, established a fair use defense in an infringement action brought by competitor Hard Candy, LLC. Hard Candy originally sued, alleging that Anastasia’s “Gleam Glow Kit” makeup product infringed the Hard Candy trademark. Anastasia’s Gleam Glow Kit is a flip-open makeup palette containing four different shades of facial highlighter, one of which was named “Hard Candy.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s finding that (1) there was no likelihood of confusion between Anastasia’s highlighter makeup shade called “hard candy” and the branded makeup of the Hard Candy company; and (2) Anastasia established a descriptive fair use defense against the trademark infringement alleged by Hard Candy.

To prevail on its trademark infringement claim, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant’s use of a mark creates a likelihood of confusion with its trademark. The District Court applied a seven-factor test to determine whether Anastasia’s Gleam Glow Kit created a likelihood of consumer confusion. The Court of Appeals agreed that the “similarity of mark” factor weighed in favor of Anastasia, because while Anastasia uses the same words, all in capital letters (HARD CANDY), the Court must consider the “overall impression created by the use of the mark as a whole, rather than comparing the individual features.”


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Earlier this year, a unanimous Supreme Court held that a copyright owner may not file an infringement lawsuit until the Copyright Office has acted to register the owner’s application.  This decision resolves a long-standing circuit split over when a copyright owner may file an infringement lawsuit – either when the application has been submitted (the “application” approach) or when the Copyright Office registers the copyright (the “registration” approach).  In the wake of this ruling for the “registration” approach, content creators are expected to make greater use of the Copyright Act’s preregistration process as a way of protecting their work before it has been published.
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On June 24, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated opinion in Iancu v. Brunetti, holding that the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks violates the First Amendment.

In 1990, Erik Brunetti, an artist and entrepreneur, founded the streetwear clothing line, FUCT (pronounced as four letters, one after the other: F-U-C-T).  Brunetti attempted to register the FUCT trademark in order to protect its value.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied his application for registration, concluding that because it was phonetically equivalent to the “past participle” of “a well-known” vulgarity, registering the FUCT trademark would violate Section 1052(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits trademark protection for immoral, shocking, offensive, and scandalous marks.  After exhausting his remedies in the PTO, Brunetti brought a First Amendment challenge to Section 1052(a) in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  That court invalidated the “immoral or scandalous” clause.  In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s decision, holding that the prohibition of immoral or scandalous trademarks infringes the First Amendment because it disfavors certain ideas.  The Court’s majority opinion, joined by both liberal and conservative justices, made clear that the government cannot discriminate against “ideas that offend.” 
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