We recently wrote about a musician who got into some trouble with a court by using social media to flaunt images of hundred dollar bills after he had filed for bankruptcy. Now, an Atlanta-based rapper known as Rolls Royce Rizzy has been found to offend trademark laws through his use of social media. In January 2015, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars NA LLC (collectively, “Rolls-Royce”) filed a suit against Robert Davis (aka “Rolls Royce Rizzy”) for various claims, including trademark dilution, trademark infringement and unfair competition/false designation of origin under the Lanham Act.
We have previously discussed how the use of the hashtag in trademarks is continuously evolving. As it turns out, the latest evolutionary wrinkle might have started to form this past March, thanks to one of pop culture’s more prominent mothers.
In a recent federal district court case in the Northern District of California (Case No. 13-cv-04608-HSG), Pintrips Inc., a website-based travel planning service, effectively pinned to the mat the trademark claims brought against it by Pinterest Inc., the operator of the popular image-sharing website. Following a bench trial, the Court rejected Pinterest’s claims of trademark infringement and dilution, as well as other related state and federal causes of action, which were based on Pinterest’s rights to its “Pinterest,” “Pin” and “Pin It” word marks. The case is of interest to industry observers and participants alike for a number of reasons. In the course of providing practical insight into the judicial thought processes at play in a point-by-point application of the eight “Sleekcraft” factors (from the 9th Circuit’s 1979 decision in AMF Inc. vs Sleekcraft Boats) that can be considered when determining if a mark has been infringed, the case also yielded some insight on the impact of timing in regard to a defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s mark; the potential of making a consumer jump through some hoops; and on the very nature of a “social media service.”
Oh, the once humble hashtag (or pound sign, number sign, octothorpe, etc.). For so long a symbol both ubiquitous and free from controversy, its new life as a go-to signifier of discussions and trending topics on Twitter has made it relevant in ways no one could have predicted a decade ago. For proof, one only need look to the courts, where a recent spat between two competitors highlights the interplay between social media symbology, such as the hashtag, and intellectual property laws (especially trademark law).
As social media and the numerous platforms continue their exponential growth in popularity and constant evolvement, legal issues surrounding their use also will inevitably emerge. A recent case filed in the Western District of Michigan is a prime example. In Beer Exchange, LLC v. Bexio, LLC, the plaintiff claims that use of a certain Twitter handle and tags on Instagram by the defendant is causing a likelihood of confusion that amounts to trademark infringement under both federal and state law.
A recent spate of cases has generally upheld, on First Amendment grounds, a developer’s right to include unlicensed trademarks in video games. However, until the body of case law becomes so prevalent that trademark owners recognize that they cannot possibly succeed in an action involving use in a video game, it may be wise for developers to be circumspect in what they include. In many cases, the costs of licensing a trademark may be much less than demonstrating rights under the First Amendment.
For more information, please read our Client Alert.
Judge Alsup out of the Northern District of California recently issued a decision relating to HP’s App Catalogue’s (its online store) sale of an app called “Chubby Checker,” an app that estimates the size of a male’s anatomy (yes, it is a “vulgar pun,” as the court noted). The artist known as Chubby Checker was not amused, and sued HP and Palm (not the app maker) for federal and state trademark infringement and right of publicity violations under various state laws. HP and Palm moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim of contributory liability and because the Communications Decency Act (CDA) barred the plaintiff’s state law claims.
HP and Palm successfully argued that the state law claims, including the right of publicity claims, were barred by the CDA, which states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” and expressly preempts any state law to the contrary. 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1), (e)(3). Section 230(f)(3) defines a content provider as “any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.” The complaint didn’t (and couldn’t) allege that HP or Palm created the app. The court concluded that the HP App Catalogue was not a “content provider,” but instead, for the purposes of the distribution of the Chubby Checker app, it was an internet service provider that hosts third-party content (apps). The ruling is one of the first to extend the CDA’s protections to an online store that sells apps.
HP and Palm were less successful in their attempt to dismiss the complaint’s allegations that they were liable for “contributory infringement” for selling the infringing app on the HP App Catalogue. Looking at the four corners of the complaint and taking “all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true,” the court found that the complaint plead that “Chubby Checker” was well-known and a registered trademark, that HP “advertised” the app on its HP App Catalogue, “maintained primary control over the use of the name” on the app on the app store, and that Palm had a “detailed application and approval process for the app.” The complaint alleged that after HP received a C&D letter, it continued to sell the app (specifically, it said that at the time of suit, and four months after it sent a C&D letter, “infringement continues”). Somewhat surprisingly, the court’s analysis did not refer to the allegedly continuing sale of the app (after receipt of the C&D letter) in concluding that the complaint satisfied the pleading requirements of Iqbal and Twombly. Thus, it is unclear whether the court took that into account when determining that Palm and HP had “actual knowledge of the infringement,” which is necessary to sustain a contributory infringement claim.
Richard Kirkpatrick and Laura Gustafson will co-present during a one-hour PLI webinar briefing entitled “Catch Phrase or Trademark Infringement? A Trap for the Unwary,” on June 19 at 1:00pm EST.
The recent 2nd Circuit opinion in Kelly-Brown v. Oprah Winfrey, _F3d_, 2013 WL 2360999 (2d Cir 2013) highlights a potential trademark “trap for the unwary” and the need for vigilant clearance. Companies regularly make use of catch phrases and other short phrases, terms, and images in connection with advertising their primary brands. Often such phrases are merely intended to catch the attention of consumers, and are not intended to function as company trademarks or slogans. The Oprah case is a good reminder, however, that even seemingly tertiary and incidental phrases should be evaluated and properly cleared.
Topics to be discussed include:
- A detailed analysis of the district court and 2nd Circuit court decisions in Kelly-Brown v. Oprah
- The legal fine line between a mere “catchphrase” and a trademark use
- Practical implications for clearance
Pillsbury Partner, Richard Kirkpatrick, will be a featured panelist at the upcoming Global Trademark Search and Application Workshop. The seminar will be providing practical guidance for the trademark search and application process in the U.S. and abroad.
Using real-world examples, this practice-based, hands-on workshop will get attendees involved and provide takeaway tips that can be put into use in daily practice immediately. Learn about the differences and similarities of differing search strategies here and abroad using interactive techniques and explore the application process and beyond.
The panel will include the following:
Richard L. Kirkpatrick, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
Anne Hiaring Hocking, Hiaring + Smith, LLP
Mary Bagnall, Charles Russell LLP
Paul Kretschmar, Vossius and Partner
PLI California Center
685 Market Street
San Francisco, California 94105
Facebook has previously filed over 80 trademark applications on variations of its name and other terms such as “POKE”, “WALL” and “LIKE”. Facebook now seems to be attempting to claim some level of ownership/protection over the word “book” as well. In a recent revision to Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” which is the agreement all users must accept when accessing Facebook, language was inserted which states (emphasis added) “[y]ou will not use our copyrights or trademarks (including Facebook, the Facebook and F Logos, FB, Face, Poke, Book and Wall), or any confusingly similar marks, except as expressly permitted by our Brand Usage Guidelines or with our prior written permission.”
While there is no record of a current US trademark application on “BOOK”, Facebook does have a pending application in the European Union’s trademark database. Moreover, Facebook has brought several suits against online sites incorporating the word “BOOK” in their domain name, with mixed results. Several of these suits have settled while others are still pending. Under US law a certain level of trademark protection can be gained merely by use of an unregistered mark. Generally, such unregistered use is referred to as having “common law” trademark rights. While these “common law” rights do not provide the same level of protection as a registered mark, they are still quite useful. Moreover, including the above-referenced clause in its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” could provide Facebook with ammunition for future suits against any of its users who attempt to wrongfully use the “BOOK” mark. Given that approximately 50% of all internet users have registered for Facebook, this provides Facebook with fairly wide-reaching (but not all-encompassing) protection.
Historically, Facebook hasn’t shied away from protecting what is seems to consider its right in the term “BOOK”. Only time will tell how Facebook plans to utilize any new rights it has gained from users by updating the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”.