Category Archives: intellectual property

Can the Estate of a Person Who is Deceased Enforce that Person’s Right of Publicity? Originally Published May 22, 2014

Marilyn Monroe passed away in 1962.  Her estate has zealously enforced her trademark and other intellectual property rights against those who would infringe upon it.  However, there are other common law rights that might apply, such as the right of publicity, which would likewise bar someone from using her name and likeness.  The question that was before the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in August of 2012 was whether that right of publicity could be applied in Marilyn Monroe’s case.  Archives v. Monroe, 692 F.3d 983 (9th Cir. 2012).

The twist in that case was that the Court had to determine whether Monroe was a resident of New York or California at the time that she passed away. If she had been a resident of New York, she would have no right of publicity since that state does not provide for such a right after death.  If she were a resident of California at the time she passed away, she would have such a right since California amended its law to provide for Monroe’s estate in particular to be able to avail itself of that protection.

The case was decided based upon the legal concept of “judicial estoppel.” Simply put, that principle states that a party cannot take countervailing positions under certain distinct circumstances, such as those presented in this case. Specifically, the Court determined that Monroe did not have such a right since she was a resident of New York at the time that she was deceased. Although she had moved to California and committed suicide there, the estate had taken the position in previous cases that she was a resident of New York.  Therefore under a theory of judicial estoppel, the Court found the estate was not allowed to make a contrary assertion in this later suit just because it was more advantageous.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

Does the Federal Government Have Trademark Rights Enforceable by the Pentagon? Originally Published May 29, 2014

Does the federal government have trademark rights, and can those rights be enforced by the military? The answer is yes and yes.

In a recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/us/as-wars-end-military-gives-its-trademarks-new-vigilance.html?_r=0 it was noted that the Marines have filed trademarks 68 times in the past year “for products like Guadalcanal sweatshirts, meant to evoke the World War II battle against the Japanese, and tip of the spear newsletters, named for the motto of the Marine Corps, First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion .”

These sorts of registrations are being driven by the fact that returning veterans are seeking to open businesses using terms that are confusingly similar to trademarks belonging to the military. One of the interesting twists is that just because a veteran is violating a military trademark, that does not mean that the military will automatically refuse to allow them to continue doing so. Sometimes the military will obtain licensing fees in return for allowing the trademarks to be used. In fact, as the article noted “since 2009 the Marines have collected $5.4 million in such fees, and last year their trademark’s office turned over $700,000 to a morale, welfare and recreation fund.”

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

What Elements Need to be Satisfied Under New York Law to State an Unjust Enrichment Claim?

To state a claim for unjust enrichment in New York, a plaintiff must establish that a) the defendant benefitted; b) the defendant benefited at the plaintiff’s expense; and c) that equity and good conscience require restitution.  Tasini v. AOL Inc., No. 11 Civ. 2472 (S.D.N.Y. March , 2012).  Ultimately, a court must be persuaded that it would be against equity and good conscience to allow a defendant to retain what the plaintiff seeks to recover. Id. at 9.

In Tasini, the Plaintiffs brought suit against the Defendants alleging, among other things, that the Huffington Post was unjustly enriched by its practice of soliciting and accepting unpaid written submissions for its website. Id. at 7.  The Plaintiffs further alleged that the Defendants unjustly denied them compensation for their independent promotion of the content.

 The Defendants moved to dismiss the suit claiming that the Plaintiffs failed to “demonstrate that equity and good conscience require restitution and, in the alternative, that the plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment claim is barred by the existence of an implied contract between the plaintiffs and the defendants.” Id. at 8.  The Defendants made clear to the Plaintiffs from the beginning that they would not be compensated for their voluntary contribution to the website.

The court noted that the essential inquiry in any action for unjust enrichment is whether it can be shown that equity and good conscience warrant restitution, which would therefore obviate the need for dismissal. See Id. at 9.  The court further noted that in evaluating whether equity requires restitution, New York courts look to whether the plaintiff has alleged an expectation of compensation that was denied.  Id. at 10. In this case, the Plaintiffs had full knowledge of the transaction and only expected to gain exposure from their contributions.  Ultimately, the court held that the complaint failed to plead an expectation of monetary compensation and the Plaintiffs therefore could not recover under their unjust enrichment theory.  Further, it was held that since the Plaintiffs contributed to The Huffington Post out of their own unprovoked desire, equity and good conscience did not support what was sought in this matter.

When bargaining, it is important that parties are clear about one another’s expectations.  Everything should be set in writing, if possible, before the transaction proceeds.

Comments/Questions: gdn@gdnlaw.com

© 2012 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

When Does Being Portrayed in a False Light Invade One’s Privacy?

The legal concept of invasion of privacy by false light could end up leaving the music network MTV in the dark.

In Savely v. MTV Music Television, the Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey denied MTV’s motion to dismiss a suit filed by a street musician. The musician asserted that he did not consent to having footage of his performance included in a documentary the network aired. Savely v. MTV Music Television, 2011 WL 2923691 (D.N.J.).  

Michael Savely, a drummer who performs daily as “Mike Alaska” on New York subway platforms, claimed that he was approached by MTV representatives during one of his routines last November. The representatives asked whether they could film his performance for use in an upcoming documentary. Savely reviewed a contract with which the representatives presented him. He then returned the contract; declined their offer to use footage of him; and told them he did not consent to being filmed. In spite of his refusal, a four-second clip of Savely’s performance was included in a program about the life and career of rap artist Nicki Minaj that debuted on November 28, 2010.

Savely filed suit against MTV asserting three claims of invasion of privacy. The Court granted MTV’s motion to dismiss two of Savely’s claims: (a) invasion by appropriation of name, likeness or identity and (b) invasion by publication of private facts. (A motion to dismiss generally allows a court to throw out prior to trial claims that are without legal merit).

However, the Court denied MTV’s motion to dismiss Savely’s other claims that the network invaded his privacy by false light. According to Savely, the inclusion of the footage of him in the documentary associated him with Minaj, an artist that he said – through her profane lyrics and provocative attire – glorified a lifestyle that was contrary to the image that he chose for himself as a performer and music teacher (drum lessons).

Under New Jersey law, the invasion of privacy can occur under a number of different circumstances. One of them is when “[o]ne who gives publicity to a matter concerning another…places the other before the public in a false light. This breaks down into two elements:

  1. the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and
  2. the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.”

See Cibenko v. Worth Publishers, Inc., 510 F.Supp. 761, 766 (D.N.J. 1981).

Savely asserted that the unprofessional quality and sounds of the footage included in the documentary reflected poorly on him. He also asserted that as a performer, the implied association between Minaj and him portrayed him in a false, unfavorable and disparaging light. In support of this assertion, Savely cited the facts that  the use of the footage caused (a) his fans to criticize him; (b) the parents of his students to terminate his teaching services;  and (c) sales of t-shirts with his image to decline. He said that part of his reason for declining MTV’s offer to be included in the documentary was his fear that association with the “wrong” artist would cost him significant business.

MTV argued, in part, that the footage of Savely was not distorted in any way and that images of him were not distinctly linked to Minaj or any substantive themes of the documentary. However, the Court noted that a claim of invasion of privacy by placing the other before the public in a false light would not require that MTV’s action defamed Savely, but instead merely that the network’s action was “something that would be objectionable to the ordinary reasonable man.” Canessa v. J.I. Kislak, Inc., 97 N.J.Super. 327, 334 (Law Div.1967).

The Court’s decision to deny MTV’s motion to dismiss does not mean the network is guilty for invading Savely’s right to privacy. Instead, it allows Savely’s claim that he was publicized in a false light to continue because the facts he alleged, if proven to be true, could support his claim. Additionally, the Court noted, the question of whether the documentary is capable of bearing a particular meaning that is highly offensive to a reasonable person is one for the Court to decide.

The Court’s decision not to deny MTV’s motion to dismiss is significant for entertainment companies and individuals that record the image and likeness of people for use during those individuals’ projects. Savely’s suit demonstrates the significance of receiving consent from those who are included during a television broadcast, movie or similar medium and the consequences of including those who refuse consent.

Comments/Questions: gdn@gdnlaw.com

© 2011 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

What are the Intellectual Property Aspects of Pitching a Proposed Television Show?

We routinely have potential clients contact us about handling the legal aspects of a proposed television show. Most of the time, this sort of inquiry involves one of two categories: (a) a reality series or (b) a minor celebrity-sponsored advice show.

These are called “strip shows” (not as interesting as it sounds). A strip show is a television series which involves minimal set design; name actors; and other high cost production aspects. This leads to the most important aspect of pitching such a television series: money. It is critical to make the production cost effective and, if at all possible. bring money to the table.

I cannot emphasize enough how it increases the chance of a series being picked up if the one pitching it has some level of financing. Otherwise, it is just another (hopefully) compelling idea that needs money to be put on the air. Great premises – especially in the reality television arena – are plentiful. People with financing behind them are not.

Another important aspect is to shoot a few episodes so that they can be displayed at syndicated television trade shows. The idea is to set up the pitch meetings before the trade shows, so that one is not attending the show as simply another producer pitching material. It is better to have made contact beforehand and set up an appointment to show one’s wares in private to a potential syndicator.

It is important to keep in mind that shooting the proposed episodes should always be done after all parties sign agreements waiving potential intellectual property ownership rights in the series. This is one of those steps that is frequently skipped because the series appears to have no intrinsic value at the outset. But that is exactly the point: one is trying to build and protect that value. Complete ownership of the rights is critical to doing so.

Comments/Questions: gdn@gdnlaw.com

© 2011 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

A Federal Court Analyzes Whether One Manuscript Allegedly Violates the Copyright Protection of Another

A Florida Federal Court recently discussed the standard for determining if one manuscript violates the copyright of another. Brian Dodd v. Chris James Woods, Film Ranch International, Inc., 2010 WL 2367140 (M.D.Fla. 2010).
The Underlying Facts
The plaintiff in that case, Brian Dodd (“Dodd”), alleged several causes of action which “arose after Defendant Chris Woods allegedly stole Dodd’s manuscript entitled “Anonymity” and gave it to Defendant Film Ranch International, who allegedly used it in producing a film entitled “Brainjacked.” Id. at 1.
The Legal Standard for Alleging Copyright Infringement
The Court explained that “[t]o establish a prima facie case of copyright infringement, ‘two elements must be proven: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.’ Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 361, 111 S.Ct. 1282, 113 L.Ed.2d 358 (1991). ‘To satisfy Feist’ s first prong, a plaintiff must prove that the work … is original and that the plaintiff complied with applicable statutory formalities.’ Bateman v. Mnemonics, Inc., 79 F.3d 1532, 1541 (11th Cir.1996) (citations omitted). A plaintiff may show copying by demonstrating that the defendants had access to the copyrighted work and that the works are ‘substantially similar.’ Oravec v. Sunny Isles Luxury Ventures, L. C., 527 F.3d 1218, 1223 (11th Cir.2008) … .If the plaintiff cannot demonstrate access, he still may establish copying by showing that the works are “strikingly similar .” Id. (citing Corwin v. Walt Disney Co., 475 F.3d 1239, 1253 (11th Cir.2007)).

“Substantial similarity exists “where an average lay observer would recognize the alleged copy as having been appropriated from the copyrighted work.” Id. (quoting Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Toy Loft, Inc., 684 F.2d 821, 829 (11th Cir.1982)). In particular, a copyright plaintiff “must establish specifically that the allegedly infringing work is substantially similar to the plaintiff’s work with regard to its protected elements.”   Leigh v. Warner Bros., Inc., 212 F.3d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir.2000). ‘Thus, in an action for infringement, it must be determined both whether the similarities between the works are substantial from the point of view of the lay [observer] and whether those similarities involve copyrightable material.’ Herzog v. Castle Rock Entm’t, 193 F.3d 1241, 1248 (11th Cir.1999).” Id. at 3.

The Court Determines That the Complaint Fails to State a Claim for Copyright Ownership Because it Failed to Allege Facts that the Manuscript was Substantially Similar

The Court held that the complaint failed to state a claim for copyright ownership because “[i]n a copyright action, the similarity between two works must concern the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Oravec, 527 F.3d at 1224. Here, Dodd has only generally alleged that the two works are similar in concept and method, and that a character from Brainjacked has the same name as the main character from Anonymity. As an initial matter, copyright protection does not extend to Dodd’s ideas, concepts or methods. See 17 U.S.C. § 102(b) (“In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, … method of operation, concept, … regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”). Therefore, aside from a character from each work sharing a name, (which by itself could not amount to substantial similarity), Dodd has failed to allege any other specific aspects of Anonymity and Brainjacked that are similar.” Id. at 4-5



Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2009 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

Contest Submission Concerns

Intellectual Property: With the success of shows like American Idol and other reality-TV-based talent competitions, contests encouraging writers, singers, songwriters and filmmakers to submit their ideas and material in order to be “discovered” have become more prevalent. While certainly, these contests have proven to be beneficial to more than a few individuals, they are not without their obstacles.

Those interested in entering any such contest, or otherwise submitting material pursuant to a request, should be cautious as to what rights they are ceding with that submission. Quite often, the terms of the contest could grant the contest-host all of the intellectual property rights relating to the submission. In addition to preventing the original artist from continuing to utilize or promote his work, it could also mean that the company hosting the contest could pursue the project without the submitter’s consent or participation.

For example, assume that there is a film festival that is hosting a contest for unknown, independent filmmakers to win an opportunity to have their films featured at the festival. More often than not, when entering such a contest, the artist submits his materials with a signed application. This application may very well have terms and conditions that are associated with it, and to which he may unknowingly agree by just signing the application. Even when there is not a written application, there are often terms and conditions that are deemed to be “accepted” when the applicant submits his materials. These contractual terms (even though they may not “look like” a contract) could include an assignment of intellectual property to the contest host. For example, such terms often say that the submitter has no right to have the materials returned to him, and that he may grant the host company all right to the work to exploit it as it wishes. In such event, the submitter may be deemed to have abandoned his rights, and the work will no longer remain his own. Importantly, the assignment may be deemed to have been made simply by submitting the work, and the rights may be granted even if the submitter does not win the contest.

This is why it is critical to have an attorney review any and all documents before signing them. It is also important to maintain copies of any document signed. Why? Because at a later time the submitter may want to pursue the original work, and he may not know whether or not he gave up his rights. If he had kept a copy of the agreement, he could at least have an attorney review it at a future time to determine the status of his rights.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2009 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

Music Licenses for Film Productions

Intellectual Property: Music Licensing: Similar to the copyright that a filmmaker may have in his work, composers and artists performing music also have copyrights in their works. Accordingly, a filmmaker cannot generally take a commercial CD that he has purchased and utilize songs as the film’s score. Rather, permission and/or licenses need to be provided for the music.

It is likely that a filmmaker will need to enter into both (1) a master use and (2) a synchronization license for each of the musical pieces that he utilizes in the production. A master use license is one which grants the licensee the right to use a specific recording in a production. A synchronization license (also referred to as a “synch license”) grants the right to use a song in timed relation to a visual work (e.g., film or television production). Accordingly, musical compositions used as background scores for film and television require a synchronization license (and generally, a corresponding synch fee). The essential difference is that the synchronization license attaches to the underlying composition, whereas the master use license relates to the actual recording. In other words, if the filmmaker simply wants a song in the background and does not care if it is a particular artist’s version of that song, he may be able to have another artist (perhaps an unknown) perform a cover of that song.

Use of the song itself requires a synchronization license. It is the use of the actual sound recording by a specific artist that requires a master use license. Assuming that the filmmaker hires an unknown artist to perform the song, the filmmaker may be able to obtain the master use rights from the unknown artist far more cheaply than obtaining the rights to a popular artist’s master recording.

“Music clearance” is often referenced as the process of determining what permission is needed to make use of a piece of music. This is normally done by ascertaining the owner(s) of the music; contacting the owner(s); negotiating an appropriate license; and entering into a written agreement regarding the same. As discussed, permission (in this case in the form of music clearance) is required if the filmmaker plans to use music for any of the exclusive rights granted to a copyright owner (i.e. copy, distribute, make derivative work, perform or display). Incorporating music into a production will arguably fall into all of these categories.

Music clearances are generally negotiated by an attorney. The license fee that is requested of the copyright owner can range quite a bit and depending on various factors (i.e., owner(s), popularity of the work or the specific use being requested). In certain cases, it can be quite costly. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to obtain these rights, preferably sooner rather than later. In the event that rights to certain music cannot be obtained, it is generally easier to switch out the music earlier in the production process rather than after the fact.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2009 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

Use of Copyright Material in Background Scene: Gottlieb Development, LLC v. Paramount Pictures, Corp.: Fair Use Prevails, but Provides a Reminder of the Importance of Pre-Production Clearance

Intellectual Property: In Gottlieb Development LLC v. Paramount Pictures, Corp., 2008 WL 8396360 (S.D.N.Y. 2008), the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York recently decided a case involving the use as a background prop of a pinball machine, in the movie What Women Want. As described by the Court, the scene at issue involved stars of the film, Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt, “brainstorm[ing] with other employees to develop these ideas for marketing certain consumer products to women. At various points during the scene, . . . a pinball machine – the “Silver Slugger” – appears in the background.” The Silver Slugger machine is distributed by the plaintiff and was apparently used in the film without its approval.

The Court denied the plaintiff’s claims for copyright and trademark infringement for use of the pinball machine in the background. In large part, both of these claims were dismissed on the rationale that the use was de minimus (only utilized minimally). The Court noted that the machine was only shown in the background; was never the focus; did not serve as a central part to any of the plot line; and was only present in a three-and-a-half minute scene out of a film running over two hours.

Although the film production company prevailed in this case, the fact that it was litigated at all emphasizes the importance of having an attorney conduct a final clearance review of a production before the work is distributed, published or sold. Such a review can help identify copyright infringement, branding concerns, trademark infringement and music clearances all of which generally need to be addressed before promoting or distributing a production. At the very least, such a review can be helpful in troubleshooting any potential issues and help identify legal risks sooner rather than later. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that other production companies, distributors and/or networks could condition a sale on an assurance that the originating company obtained all rights free and clear from the claims of any third parties. By preparing ahead of time, production companies can help prevent possible infringement actions, as well as increase the production’s viability of being picked up by third parties.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2009 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

New York Enacts the Piracy Protection Act

Intellectual Property: Effective as of December 2008, New York has a new law directed at curtailing “multimedia” privacy, and is specifically aimed at preventing music and movie pirating.

The new law strengthens and enhances New York’s laws that relate to recording entertainment productions. Specifically, the law makes the recording of a motion picture or live theater production a first, second and third degree crime, depending upon the wrongdoer’s intent in recording the work. Specifically, the act becomes a second degree crime if the recording is done “for financial profit or commercial purposes;” where the person has been previously convicted of violating the Piracy Protection Act in the past five years; or where the recording constitutes a substantial portion of the performance.

Moreover, the use of a recording device in a theater becomes a first degree crime if the wrongdoer if he commits the second degree crime and has been previously convicted of a second degree violation of the law within the past ten years. A first degree violation is considered to be a felony.

Notably, however, to have committed a third degree violation of the Piracy Protection Act, the law is very broadly construed. For instance, it does not appear to matter the quantity of the performance that is recorded. Rather, the mere use of a recording device in a theater is enough to trigger a violation of the law. Moreover, a “theater” for the law’s purposes is very broadly defined so as to include concert halls, theaters and auditoriums for various types of performances. There is, however, an exception built into the law for student performances.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2009 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC