Will Phonetic Profanity Be OK to Register as a Trademark??

SCOTUS granted certiorari to and recently heard arguments on the case of a guy trying to register FUCT as a trademark. The question: Can a phonetically profane word be registered as a trademark?

The US Patent & Trademark Office denied registration of the mark based on its obvious similarity to the past participle of a verb commonly recognized as profane. The case has wended its way through the appellate process (US District Court for DC, Federal Circuit) and now sits before the Nine Wise Ones where it asks them to decide whether a long-standing rule prohibiting the registration of profane words interferes with the trademark holder’s First Amendment free-speech rights. They heard oral arguments on 15 April 2019.

The Roberts Court has a history with disparaging marks, having allowed SLANTS (which the USPTO denied based on its derogatory reference to Orientals) only last year. But SLANTS is not outright profanity. FUCT, phonetically, is. It’ll be interesting to see what this blatantly conservative Court does with FUCT. Seems to me that either the trademark holder will be FUCT or the public will be.

Public Domain Expanded Nicely on 1/1/2019

For the first time in 20 years, the public domain for copyrighted works has expanded! Works that were copyrighted in 1923 were protected on 31 December 2018 but entered the public domain on 1 January 2019 … and that has happened now for the first time in 20 years thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Act.

Anyone can now re-publish the 1923 works, or use them in other projects, without asking permission or paying the former rights holders. Anyone can record new versions of the musical compositions; anyone can show the movies for a profit; anyone can even remake those movies. Project Gutenberg can give you the ebook of those 1923 works for free.

Works now in the public domain include some of the poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost; a couple of Agatha Christie mysteries; Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet”; “The Ego and the Id” by Freud; writings by by Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jean Cocteau, Italo Svevo, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, Maria Montessori, Lu Xun, Joseph Conrad, Zane Grey, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs; artwork by M. C. Escher, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, and Man Ray.

Be careful with music, though. Some music published in 1923 is NOT in the public domain, and will not be until 2064 since rights over music recorded until 1972 is governed by state law.

IP Mosaic Conference – Blockchain Section

I was fortunate to be able to attend at least part of the Fourth Annual IP Mosaic Conference, held at my alma mater, UNH School of Law (formerly, and when I attended, Franklin Pierce Law Center). Less fortunately, I was sick and had to bag it, so I missed the section on blockchain.

But the conference organizers recorded the section on blockchain, which was the part of the conference I was really interested in, and they invite you to listen in.

Enjoy!

Collection vs. Individual Copyright Registration

According to a post by Heather Hummel on the Huffington Post’s blog:

Last spring when I discovered eight of my own images had been copyright infringed, I became particularly passionate about the legal rights of artists. I was fortunate that I had done a few things to help with protecting my work. One step was including a copyright statement, which is clearly stated, on my website. But, the most important step I took was not only registering my copyrights, but doing so in a timely manner. As such, several of my images that were stolen had already been registered with the U.S. Copyright Officeupon infringement. I can attest that it was worth the few pennies per image to do so.

For example, the fee for me to register 184 photos for 2013 and 134 photos for 2014 was $55 per batch.

This photographer registered copyright in her photographs by batching her photos and registering as a collection (the Copyright Office’s term is “collection,” not “batch”). This is a perfectly viable way to register copyright. It is cost-effective and it has teeth.

But wait.

A copyright infringement award is based on the percentage of the copyrighted work that is infringed. If the photographer registers only one or a very few photos in each registration and eats the $55/registration package fee, the percentage of the work that is infringed increases, here potentially by 100-fold or more.

Look at it this way. If you register 100 photos in one collection and someone infringes one of those photos, your maximum infringed percentage is 1%. Your recovery is 1% of the maximum recovery allowed for that infringement. If, though, you register 10 photos in one batch, your maximum infringed percentage is 10% and your potential recovery increases by a factor of 10. If you register each photo individually, your infringed percentage is potentially 100% and your recovery increases by a factor of 100.

It’s a trade-off, though; many photographers don’t want to spend $55 to register each and every photo; that simply gets cost-prohibitive very quickly. And that’s okay, as long as each photographer understands that the potential recovery for infringement goes down with increasing numbers of photos in the collection.

Matal v. Tam, ___ US ___ (2017)

SCOTUS handed down a HUGE trademark decision yesterday.

Matal v. Tam declares the language of 15 USC 1052(a), which prevents the registration of marks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead” to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause.

Wow.

This opens up a whole new world of potential trademark registrations.

 

Free Legal Opinions and Orders Easily Accessible

This is pretty cool.

The Free Law Project is working to make available in one place all the free materials available on PACER. That includes opinions and orders from every federal court in the nation.

“Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator. PACER is provided by the Federal Judiciary in keeping with its commitment to providing public access to court information via a centralized service.” Note that the information is “public” access, not “free” access. Many documents on PACER require payment (at the whopping rate of $0.10/page, which can add up pretty fast if you’re talking about briefs and pleadings and motions and all the rest of it). The paid pages will not be available through the Free Law Project, but it will be easier to access the many opinions and orders that are available on PACER for free.

Happy Earth Day 2017!

The patent world is full of technologies that support the Earth. From solar panels to ever-more-efficient batteries to new recycling technologies, inventors throughout the USA are working to protect our environment.

Even the oil and gas industry have worked, at least a little, to help keep things cleaner. According to www.oilprice.com:

Oil companies, working alongside environmental organizations, scientists, biologists and engineers have developed numerous solutions for spills occurring both on land and in the water. Water spills can now effectively be cleaned by presses that involve straining and draining while containing the oil slick, using “floating booms” to corral the oil while skimmers and vacuum pumps cleanse the water and reclaim large percentages of the spilled oil.

Another “eco-friendly” oil spill management method for both water and land spills is called “Bio-Remediation. It’s a technique that uses living organisms such as bacteria and fungi to degrade, break down and in some cases; actually eat the oil as it safely cleanses the spill without hurting the environment.  Meanwhile, serious upgrading of the technology now being used for the drilling and refining of oil is cutting previous pollution levels down tremendously, as the oil industry increases profits by processing more usable oil while polluting a lot less.

Oil companies are now investing billions of dollars in socially responsible programs and are quickly becoming one of the largest supporters of environmentally friendly programs worldwide. Oil is already largely responsible for many of the major advances in medicine, pharmacology and world wide health care infrastructure, but now they are some of the largest supporters of research dedicated to promoting renewable energy sources.

This text was written in 2009; whether it remains true in the new administration or not is questionable. Our current administration is not friendly toward our planet, and that fact needs to be mitigated through strong Congressional action that puts into statute environmental protections which have, up until now, been administrative.

So, along with lobbying for science, we need to lobby for statutory control of air pollutants, water pollutants, increased use of green energy sources, and all the rest of the stuff formerly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. There is so very much technology out there already to support an eco-friendly country … we just need to have the backing of the government to continue to develop and use it.

Cheerleader Outfit Designs ARE Covered by Copyright

Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al., 580 US ___, a newly (22 March 2017) decided copyright case, finds that the design elements of a cheerleading outfit can be covered by copyright.

According to the syllabus of the case, SCOTUS holds: “A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here.”

This case is interesting because it tells us where lies the line between industrial design, which is not protected by copyright (it may be protected by patent), and artistic design, which is. Courts have disagreed where that line lies.

Here, the District Court held that the designs did not qualify for protection under copyright because the designs served the useful purpose of identifying the outfits as “cheerleading uniforms.” The designs are therefore utilitarian, cannot be separated out to stand on their own, and therefore cannot be protected by copyright (you can read the District Court’s opinion at 2014 WL 819422 (WD Tenn., Mar. 1, 2014)).

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed; they held, with one dissent that upheld the District Court’s opinion, that the graphic designs are indeed “separately identifiable” because a cheerleading costume without design is still identifiable as a cheerleading costume, so the graphics on such a garment can indeed be separated out and separately displayed and are thus protectable under copyright (read the 6th Circuit’s opinion at 799 F. 3d 468, 471 (2015)).

The Supreme Court affirms the 6th Circuit.

So what does this case teach us? We now know that designs on clothing CAN be separated out from the clothing, making the design on the clothing, even if the design relates to the function of the clothing, protectable under copyright.

We know that “The statute … provides that the “design of a useful article” can include two-dimensional “pictorial” and “graphic” features, and separability analysis applies to those features just as it does to three-dimensional “sculptural” features.”

We know that “…a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium.”

Copyright remains one of the most case-by-case determinations around. The findings of this case have yet to be tested on utilitarian items other than clothing; we’ll watch this with some interest to see what, if anything, happens.

Copyright Rulemaking on Moral Rights

“The U.S. Copyright Office has published a Federal Register notice extending the deadlines for public comment in connection with the Office’s study on the moral rights of attribution and integrity. Public comments are now due no later than 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on March 30, 2017, and reply comments are now due no later than 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on May 15, 2017.

For more information, click here to visit copyright.gov

So … what are “moral rights”?

Moral rights provide an author with the ability to control the eventual fate of their works. In the US, these rights are limited to visual arts (other countries allow other, more general, moral rights). You can find the statute at 17 USC 106A, commonly called the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). Under VARA, an artist has the right to control the use of his/her name in connection with a work (including NOT using his/her name in connection with works s/he did not create), prevent the use of his/her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

For an example of how moral rights work, say you bought a painting by a famous artist working today. This artist is known for his/her French landscapes in the style of Monet; very peaceful, very verdant, very proper. Your idiot stepson, whom you never liked, then decides to spray paint graphic obscenities on the work. The artist, although you actually own the work, can now dissociate him/herself from that work; thus, the work can no longer be sold under Artist’s name with the obscene spray painting. You thus no longer own a work by Artist; if Artist’s name adds value to the work, your painting has just plummeted in value even more than it did with the addition of spray paint.

“The [US Copyright] Office is commencing its study to review how existing U.S. law, including provisions found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code and other federal and state laws, protects the moral rights of attribution and integrity and whether any additional protection is advisable in this area. To support this effort and provide thorough assistance to Congress, the Office is seeking public input on a number of questions. “