Would You Like An OBAMA Cigar? We Think The USPTO Will Say: "No You Can't."

By Dave Rein

Co-author:  Branden Gregory (more on him later)

We admit that we love trademarks enough that we can pass time away with our feet propped up while running random searches on the USPTO's database of trademark applications.  Sure this time might be better spent working off a few more stubborn winter pounds, but that might have meant missing a few gems. 

During Barack Obama's campaign for President, there were a few applications to register various OBAMA related trademarks which were presumably filed by his supporters and his opponents.  Later, more commercial-oriented applications appeared:  OBAMA bottled water, cigars and other products that we're sure we can't live without.  The applications just keep coming.  And not just here in the U.S.  The IPKAT reported that trademark applications in Europe to register OBAMA marks have appeared in several European countries.

But, did any of these applicants really think the USPTO would register these marks? The USPTO is not going to allow registration of President Obama's name without the President's consent.  Not only will the President politely decline to consent to Obama soft drinks, but we are also willing to bet it will be nearly impossible to get past Obama's personal secretary, Katie Johnson.  As for these marks, in the words of Heid Klum, the host of Project Runway, "You are out!"

As for those marks which "merely" propose using "OBAMA" as a term of the mark, they are not likely to get much further as the USPTO will probably construe the marks as consisting primarily of a surname.  In the eyes of the USPTO, this is a "no no."  We were surprised to learn that the Obama name is relatively unusual in the U.S., but it won't be perceived as unusual any longer.  We can't come up with another meaning for "OBAMA" other than as a surname:  it does not signify a geographical area, have a secondary meaning or translate from Swahili into something other than the President's surname (we'll admit to being a bit rusty on our Swahili).

So why did attorneys agree to file these applications?  It strikes one of us as fairly straight forward that the USPTO won't register the marks, but were we missing something?  Brief interlude . . . one of the best things about summer is that one of us gets to hang around some fantastic summer associates including Branden Gregory who graciously agreed to hit the books and find a way to convince the USPTO to register these marks.   Although fully inspired with the "Yes We Can" slogan, his conclusion was that we are not going to be seeing Obama energy drinks anytime soon. 

Then what was the good-faith basis for filing the applications to register Obama marks?  Did the attorneys tell their clients that perhaps they might get lucky and catch one of the trademark attorneys in a mischievous mood?  That wouldn't be kosher so that can't be it.  Anyone have any thoughts?  Anyone?  Bueller?  . . . Bueller?

We Are Now On Twitter!

By Dave Rein

For those of you who read the last post closely, yes it is true.  Owners, Borrowers & Thieves 2.0 has jumped into Twitter and you can now access the posts through Twitter by following me @daverein. 

Because these are uncharted waters for me, I am hoping that the Twitter veterans among you will lend a guiding hand until the Twitter for Dummies book is released next month!  

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A $1.92 Million Win For The Music Industry. Now What?

By Dave Rein

As I read Ben Sheffner's tweets about the Capital v. Thomas case with interest, I was struck by how quickly the jury issued its decision to award the record companies $1.92 million -- about $1.7 million more than the original jury awarded.  I instantly thought of this picture as I think both Ms. Thomas and her attorney are going to need plenty of this and some lucky lottery tickets.  

From the music industry's perspective, this was an important win.  The stunning size of the verdict and the swiftness with which the jury came back with the award should please those who were tasked with the aggressive campaign against copyright infringement.  

I agree with Sheffner that the judge will likely slash the jury's award, but it shouldn't come to that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, winning the case is only the first step for the music industry.  It has won the case and now it needs to win the public relations battle by not overreaching.  

The music industry has every incentive to keep the decision from spinning into a public relations circus like what happened in the Pirate Bay case.  It appears that Thomas and her attorney want to quietly put an end to this case so the record companies now have the opportunity to win the public relations battle.  They can do so by not insisting on a settlement that results in financial ruin for Thomas, but instead reaches a confidential settlement that Thomas can live with.

Settlement will not undermine its message that although the Pirates of the Caribbean would have considered the copyright code to be more like  "guidelines" than actual rules, the music industry politely and firmly begs to differ.  "Welcome aboard the Black Pearl", Ms. Thomas.

The Music Industry Will Need To Win More Than Just The Legal Arguments In Capital v. Thomas

By Dave Rein

They do things differently in Sweden.  If there was an RSS feed for all the political news happening in Sweden, I think I would subscribe.  I remember in college hearing that Donald Duck beat out several political parties in the Swedish elections.  You know it is time to give it up and run for the dog catcher position when you lose to Donald Duck.  

The independent streak seems to continue today.  For most of us, the only way last week's European Union parliamentary elections were going to catch our attention was if another Donald Duck episode occurred.  Sure enough, the voters in Sweden obliged. 

In a reaction to the landmark file-sharing case (i.e. sharing of music, movies and books) popularly known by the file-sharing site's name, the Pirate Bay, the voters elected a member of Sweden's Pirate Party to the European Parliament. For those who are not up to speed with the Pirate Bay case, take a look at the the Wall Street Journal post for background or just know that Sweden's tolerant view on copyright infringement changed when a court announced that the Pirate Bay defendants were liable to the record companies to the tune of $3.6 million.  Apparently, the Swedish voters were not pleased with the court's decision and voted in protest for the Pirate Party.

But, don't just file this under:  "Funny Things That Happen In Sweden."  Of the thousands of copyright litigation cases that the music industry filed here in the U.S., only one ever made it to trial.  And that case returned to the courtroom this week.  

The case is Capital v. Thomas and involves six record companies suing Jammie Thomas for allegedly using a peer-to-peer network to share and download music.  To learn the details of the case, I recommend reading Ben Sheffner's posts.  He has been blogging extensively about the case and is covering each blow-by-blow during the trial. 

I don't predict that the outcome of the trial will launch new political parties in the U.S. who send representatives to Washington D.C. under a pirate flag.  But, managing the public's perception of the case will be important.  The voters who sent the Pirate Party to Parliament were largely 18-24 year olds -- an important demographic for the music industry and a group that will soon move on to positions where they will make policy decisions on copyright issues for years to come. 

Right or wrong, the music industry needs to not only win the Thomas case, but also the public relations battle as well.  If it does, the music industry will be able to quote one of our favorite pirates, Captain Jack Sparrow, who said:  "I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically."  "Savvy?"

 

The Supreme Court May Decide Whether Registration Is Required To File A Copyright Lawsuit

By Dave Rein

We at the Owners, Borrowers & Thieves 2.0 are big enough to admit to our mistakes when, after an exhaustive search, we can't find anyone else to blame.  Not finding anyone to blame other than the sheer height of the stack labeled:  "Interesting Things I May Never Have Time To Read", I'll have to confess that if you were interested in the post about the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach that the courts have taken on the issue of copyright registration, there is even more to the story. 

The issue of whether you need to register your copyright before filing a lawsuit may very well have floated up to the Supreme Court after all.  In March, the Supreme Court accepted certiorari in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick which might resolve the copyright registration issue.  Then again, it might not.

Shourin Sen., who writes the Exclusive Rights blog, has an great post walking through the case.  For those who think these issues sound like a good substitute for a sleep aide, another commentator says oh contraire -- these issues are "sexy"!

I'm not ready to say that the issue is "sexy".  At the same time, while none of the briefs filed in the case will find their way into your local bookstore, they do make for an interesting read.  I was especially absorbed in the United States' brief filed three days ago which takes a nuanced approach to the issue.

For those who don't care to immerse themselves in reading the briefs, the take away is that even though the Petition for Certiorari focused on a couple of narrow issues, the Court ultimately asked the parties to brief a broader issue:  "Does 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) restrict the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts over copyright infringement actions?" 

So, although the Court could still avoid ruling on the issue directly, it is looking more and more hopeful that we will get that long-awaited guidance from the Supreme Court after all! 

More Chaos On Whether Registration Is Required To File A Copyright Infringement Case

By Dave Rein

Forum shopping in not just for patent and securities attorneys although their shopping habits have a greater tendency to get picked up by the Wall Street Journal law bloggers.  Even in the copyright world, crossing state lines to a different circuit or district court can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Copyright Act requires authors to register their works with the Copyright office before filing a lawsuit.  Does this requirement mean that the copyright owner has to wait until the Copyright Office actually issues a registration or is it enough that the owner applied for the copyright registration?  Even though the language of 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) uses the same words in New York as it does in Texas, the courts are horribly split on this issue.  It is not getting any better.

The recent district court decision in Minnesota, Tri-Marketing, Inc. v. Mainstream Marketing Services, Inc., highlights that the split is not just among the circuit courts.  With the new decision, the Eighth Circuit now has:

  1. two Minnesota district courts reaching opposite conclusions;
  2. dicta from an Eighth Circuit court decision suggesting one conclusion; and
  3. a district court in Nebraska saying that suggestion is a bunch of baloney. 

Don't blame this mess on the drinking water in the Eighth Circuit.  The D.C. courts have reached opposite conclusions as have district courts in New York and elsewhere. It appears that the district courts are running in random directions in those circuits which have not weighed in yet. The recent decision from Minnesota just reminded me how much we need the circuit courts to take these cases.  It may take the Supreme Court to straighten this out, but it will take more circuit courts accusing the others of an inability to read English to get the Supreme Court's attention.

Is this stuff that only a law professor could love?  Hardly.  Consider the example of an architect who learns that plans which show promise of launching his career suddenly appeared on the Internet or a photographer who discovers her images will be used in a political campaign without her permission and against her own wishes.  The common thread in both is that each will want an immediate injunction to shut down the infringer.  

In a circuit or district court that requires registration first, the court won't issue an injunction based on copyright infringement -- at least not until you file for an expedited registration to try and jump in front of the incredible backlog at the Copyright Office.   Yet, cross a state line and the outcome may be entirely different.  The court may or may not grant the injunction, but at least the court will listen to you.  All this leads to forum shopping and races to the courthouse -- which just increases the cost of litigation that is already too expensive for many.

The American Bar Association has been studying the issue and may try to get Congress to clarify the law rather than waiting for the process to slowly play its way through the courts.  Then again, it may not.  What do you think?  Is this a "who cares" issue?  If it is worth our attention, what is the solution?