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

Many in the industry are familiar with the following scenario. A young gamer, grinding tirelessly for untold hours perfecting her skill, honing her strategy, finally qualifies for an esports tournament. For that gamer, the true hard work begins after qualification. She now has to try to convince her parents to agree to let her participate, which may include travel (though compensated) to a far off location. In many cases, the first time the parents become aware that their child even entered a tournament (much less won an all-expense paid trip to an esports tournament) is this conversation—after the child has already been offered compensation to travel to and compete in the tournament.

If you are a game publisher, tournament organizer, or otherwise involved in the logistical chain of events described herein, there may be a big problem. The collection and use of data provided by children is regulated in the United States by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”). COPPA is designed to protect the privacy of children by establishing certain requirements for websites that market to children. Most notably, COPPA requires website operators to obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting personal information from children. The FTC operates under the assumption that if children are the target demographic for a website, the website must assume that the person accessing the website is a child, and proper consent must be obtained. This assumption exists even if the website did not start with children as the target audience.

Continue Reading Update Required for Youth Esports – Children’s Privacy Takes Center Stage at Upcoming FTC Workshop

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.

Continue Reading Are Paparazzi Images Fair Game for Social Media?

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of a case against actor James Woods over a tweet he posted during the 2016 presidential campaign. Woods, an outspoken conservative, was sued by plaintiff Portia Boulger, who described herself in her complaint as “a very active volunteer and pledged convention delegate for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.”

The case arose from inaccurate information shared on social media. On March 11, 2016, Donald Trump held a Republican primary campaign rally in Chicago. That evening, the Chicago Tribune posted a photograph on its Twitter account of a woman at the Trump rally giving a Nazi salute. The next day, a Twitter user posted the photograph, together with a separate photograph of Boulger, and a caption identifying Boulger as an organizer for Bernie Sanders. The Twitter user wrote (falsely) that “[t]he ‘Trump Nazi’ is Portia Boulger, who runs the Women for Bernie Sanders Twitter account. It’s another media plant.”

Continue Reading James Woods Avoids Defamation Liability for a Tweet

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.”

Continue Reading Eleventh Circuit Affirms Finding of Fair Use in “Hard Candy” Makeup Case Based on Manner of Use Analysis

Georgia insurance adjuster and consultant Bruce Fredrics’ filed a lawsuit against a reporter relating to a proposed television exposé on Mr. Fredrics and his business.  In Frederics v. Hon. Brad Raffensperger, Georgia Secretary of State, et al., Case No. 2019CV317438 (Aug. 2, 2019), Mr. Fredrics sought effectively to stop Harry Samler, the host of the local news’ station’s pro-consumer investigative show “Better Call Harry,” from publishing any news stories about his dealings with a homeowner who claimed he defrauded her, and who had subsequently turned to Mr. Samler to publicize her alleged negative experience.  Notably, Mr. Samler’s investigation dealt not only with Mr. Frederics’ dealings with this homeowner, but also the consumer complaint filed by that homeowner and resulting investigation against Mr. Frederics by a Georgia regulatory agency.

But Mr. Samler’s employer, CBS46, had other plans to protect its lead investigative reporter (and, ostensibly, one of its most popular segments): it filed a motion to intervene and to join a motion to strike filed by Mr. Samler that asked the Georgia Superior Court to make a finding that Mr. Frederics’ lawsuit impermissibly curtailed CBS46’s constitutionally-protected newsgathering activities.  Mr. Frederics opposed both motions, first claiming that, because CBS46 was neither a defendant in his actions nor the target of any of his specific claims, it had no right to intervene in the action.  The Superior Court promptly disposed of that argument, noting that “[t]he media’s right to intervene in legal actions that seek to impede its ability to gather and report the news is well established.” Continue Reading News at 11: Georgia court finds that television station has First Amendment right to produce investigative reports

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. Continue Reading Supreme Court Ruling on When Copyright Infringement Lawsuits May Be Filed Brings Heightened Interest in Preregistration

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.”  Continue Reading Supreme Court Strikes Down Prohibition of Registration of Immoral or Scandalous Trademarks on First Amendment Grounds

Two federal courts recently dismissed defamation claims brought against the New York Times and the Kansas City Star, finding the subject articles employed standard investigative journalism techniques that immunized the newspapers from liability under state defamation laws.

In Croce v. New York Times Co., No. 18-4158 (6th Cir. July 17, 2019), the 6th Circuit upheld the dismissal of an Ohio State University cancer researcher’s defamation claim, finding that a “reasonable reader” would interpret the article as presenting both sides of the controversy.  The suit arose after the Times published an article examining Dr. Carlo Croce’s cancer research in the context of a broader piece about the inherent conflicts present when large research institutions reap millions of dollars in grant money for “star” researchers, and then are put in the position of investigating those researchers’ methods. Continue Reading Fair and Balanced Reporting Pays Off: Newspapers Avoid Defamation Suits by Sticking to the Truth