After completing the material in this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
- Identify the principal kinds of intellectual property
- Understand the difference between patents and trade secrets, and why a company might choose to rely on trade secrets rather than obtain a patent
- Know what copyrights are, how to obtain them, and how they differ from trademarks
- Understand why some “marks” may not be eligible for trademark protection, and how to obtain trademark protection for those that are
The General Nature of Property Rights
- Understand the elastic and evolving boundaries of what the law recognizes as property that can be bought or sold on the market.
- Distinguish real property from personal property and intellectual property.
Definition of Property
Property is, in many senses, the most foundational of all areas of the law. Ownership of land in particular has long been the foundation of political systems, from the concept of empire, distinguishing between common and nobility, voting rights, and so on. In modern society, the rights associated with owning land are less central to our legal regime, while intellectual property has taken on increasing value in a digital-based economy.
Property, which seems like a common-sense concept, is difficult to define in an intelligible way; philosophers have been striving to define it for the past 2,500 years. To say that “property is what we own” is to beg the question—that is, to substitute a synonym for the word we are trying to define. Blackstone’s famous definition is somewhat wordy: “The right of property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. It consists in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all a person’s acquisitions, without any control or diminution save only by the laws of the land.” A more concise definition, but perhaps too broad, comes from the Restatement of the Law of Property, which defines property as the “legal relationship between persons with respect to a thing.”
The Restatement’s definition makes an important point: property is a legal relationship, the power of one person to use objects in ways that affect others, to exclude others from the property, and to acquire and transfer property. Still, this definition does not contain a specific list of those nonhuman “objects” that could be in such a relationship. We all know that we can own personal objects like iPods and DVDs, and even more complex objects like homes and minerals under the ground. Property also embraces objects whose worth is representative or symbolic: ownership of stock in a corporation is valued not for the piece of paper called a stock certificate but for dividends, the power to vote for directors, and the right to sell the stock on the open market. Wholly intangible things or objects like copyrights and patents and bank accounts are capable of being owned as property. But the list of things that can be property is not fixed, for our concept of property continues to evolve. Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and structured investment vehicles (SIVs), prime players in the subprime mortgage crisis, were not on anyone’s list of possible property even fifteen years ago.
The Economist’s View
Property is not just a legal concept, of course, and different disciplines express different philosophies about the purpose of property and the nature of property rights. To the jurist, property rights should be protected because it is just to do so. To an economist, the legal protection of property rights functions to create incentives to use resources efficiently. For a truly efficient system of property rights, some economists would require universality (everything is owned), exclusivity (the owners of each thing may exclude all others from using it), and transferability (owners may exchange their property). Together, these aspects of property would lead, under an appropriate economic model, to efficient production and distribution of goods. But the law of property does not entirely conform to the economic conception of the ownership of productive property by private parties; there remain many kinds of property that are not privately owned and some parts of the earth that are considered part of “the commons.” For example, large areas of the earth’s oceans are not “owned” by any one person or nation-state, and certain land areas (e.g., Yellowstone National Park) are not in private hands.
Classification of Property
Property can be classified in various ways, including tangible versus intangible, private versus public, and personal versus real. Tangible property is that which physically exists, like a building, a popsicle stand, a hair dryer, or a steamroller. Intangible property is something without physical reality that entitles the owner to certain benefits; stocks, bonds, and intellectual property would be common examples. Public property is that which is owned by any branch of government; private property is that which is owned by anyone else, including a corporation.
Another important distinction is between real and personal property. Essentially, real property is immovable; personal property is movable. At common law, personal property has been referred to as “chattels.” When chattels become affixed to real property in a certain manner, they are called fixtures and are treated as real property. (For example, a bathroom cabinet purchased at Home Depot and screwed into the bathroom wall may be converted to part of the real property when it is affixed.) Real property will be discussed in the following chapter.
Property is difficult to define conclusively, and there are many different classifications of property. There can be public property as well as private property, tangible property as well as intangible property, and, most importantly, real property as well as personal property. These are important distinctions, with many legal consequences.
- Kristen buys a parcel of land on Marion Street, a new and publicly maintained roadway. Her town’s ordinances say that each property owner on a public street must also provide a sidewalk within ten feet of the curb. A year after buying the parcel, Kristen commissions a house to be built on the land, and the contractor begins by building a sidewalk in accordance with the town’s ordinance. Is the sidewalk public property or private property? If it snows, and if Kristen fails to remove the snow and it melts and ices over and a pedestrian slips and falls, who is responsible for the pedestrian’s injuries?
- When can private property become public property? Does public property ever become private property?
Few businesses of any size could operate without being able to protect their rights to a particular type of intangible personal property: intellectual property. The major forms of intellectual property are patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Unlike tangible personal property (machines, inventory) or real property (land, office buildings), intellectual property is formless. It is the product of the human intellect that is embodied in the goods and services a company offers and by which the company is known.
A patent is a grant from government that gives an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, and sell an invention for a period of twenty years from the date of filing the application for a patent. A copyright is the right to exclude others from using or marketing forms of expression. A trademark is the right to prevent others from using a company’s product name, slogan, or identifying design. Other forms of intellectual property are trade secrets (particular kinds of information of commercial use to a company that created it) and right of publicity (the right to exploit a person’s name or image). Note that the property interest protected in each case is not the tangible copy of the invention or writing—not the machine with a particular serial number or the book lying on someone’s shelf—but the invention or words themselves. That is why intellectual property is said to be intangible: it is a right to exclude any others from gaining economic benefit from your own intellectual creation. In this chapter, we examine how Congress, the courts, and the Patent and Trademark Office have worked to protect the major types of intellectual property.
- Understand what a trademark is and why it deserves protection.
- Know why some “marks” may not be eligible for trademark protection, and how to obtain trademark protection for those that are.
- Explain what “blurring” and “tarnishment” are and what remedies are available to the holder of the mark.
Definitions of Trademarks
A trademark is defined in the federal Lanham Act of 1946 as “any word, name, symbol, or device or any combination thereof adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify his goods and distinguish them from goods manufactured or sold by others.”
Examples of well-known trademarks are Coca-Cola, Xerox, and Apple. A service mark is used in the sale or advertising of services to identify the services of one person and distinguish them from the services of others. Examples of service marks are McDonald’s, BP, and Hilton. A certification mark is used in connection with many products “to certify regional or other origin, material, mode of manufacture, quality, accuracy or other characteristics of such goods or services or that the work or labor on the goods or services was performed by members of a union or other organization.” Examples are the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and UL (Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., approval mark). Unlike other forms of trademark, the owner of the certification mark (e.g., Good Housekeeping, or the Forest Stewardship Council’s FSC mark) is not the owner of the underlying product.
Extent of Trademark Protection
Kinds of Marks
Trademarks and other kinds of marks may consist of words and phrases, pictures, symbols, shapes, numerals, letters, slogans, and sounds. Trademarks are a part of our everyday world: the sounds of a radio or television network announcing itself (NBC, BBC), the shape of a whiskey bottle (Haig & Haig’s Pinch Bottle), a series of initials (GE, KPMG, IBM), or an animal’s warning growl (MGM’s lion).
Limitations on Marks
Although trademarks abound, the law limits the subjects that may fall into one of the defined categories. Not every word or shape or symbol will be protected in an infringement action. To qualify for protection, a trademark must be used to identify and distinguish. The courts employ a four-part test: (1) Is the mark so arbitrary and fanciful that it merits the widest protection? (2) Is it “suggestive” enough to warrant protection without proof of secondary meaning? (3) Is it “descriptive,” warranting protection if secondary meaning is proved? (4) Is the mark generic and thus unprotectable?
These tests do not have mechanical answers; they call for judgment. Some marks are wholly fanciful, clearly identify origin of goods, and distinguish them from others—Google, for example. Other marks may not be so arbitrary but may nevertheless be distinctive, either when adopted or as a result of advertising—for example, Crest, as the name of a toothpaste.
Marks that are merely descriptive of the product are entitled to protection only if it can be shown that the mark has acquired secondary meaning. This term reflects a process of identification on the mark in the public mind with the originator of the product. Holiday Inn was initially deemed too descriptive: an inn where people might go on holiday. But over time, travelers came to identify the source of the Great Sign and the name Holiday Inn as the Holiday Inn Corporation in Memphis, and secondary meaning was granted. Holiday Inn could thus protect its mark against other innkeepers, hoteliers, and such; however, the trademark protection for the words Holiday Inn was limited to the corporation’s hotel and motel business, and no other.
As technology changes, the law progresses as well. In 2020, the Supreme Court found that a generic term combined with “.com” could qualify for trademark protection. For example, “booking” is a generic term for making a travel reservation, but “booking.com” has acquired a specialized meaning in the minds of consumers (referring to the particular website booking.com) and could thus acquire trademark protection.
Certain words and phrases may not qualify at all for trademark protection. These include generic terms like “wine” and ordinary words like “fast food.” In one case, a federal appeals court held that the word “Lite” is generic and cannot be protected by a beer manufacturer to describe a low-calorie brew. Donald Trump’s effort to trademark “You’re fired!” and Paris Hilton’s desire to trademark “That’s hot!” were also dismissed as being generic.
In 2017, the Supreme Court in Matal v. Tam decided that a Lanham Act restriction on registering trademarks that disparaged others violated the First Amendment. Simon Tam, the bassist for the Asian-American band The Slants had attemped to register a trademark for the name under the category “Entertainment in the nature of live performances by a musical band.” The trademark office refused to register the mark as disparaging to Asian-Americans, while Tam argued the band was taking ownership of the term. The Supreme Court ultimately found that the Lanham Act restriction was unconstitutional. Similarly in 2019’s Iancu v. Brunetti, the Court ruled that a restriction on scandalous trademarks (such as FUCT, standing for “Friends U Can’t Trust”) was also unconstitutional.
Deceptive words will not be accepted for registration. Thus the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied registration to the word Vynahyde because it suggested that the plastic material to which it was applied came from animal skin. Geographic terms are descriptive words and may not be used as protected trademarks unless they have acquired a secondary meaning, such as Hershey when used for chocolates. (Hershey’s chocolates are made in Hershey, Pennsylvania.) A design that reflects a common style cannot be protected in a trademark to exclude other similar designs in the same tradition. Thus the courts have ruled that a silverware pattern that is a “functional feature” of the “baroque style” does not qualify for trademark protection. Finally, the Lanham Act denies federal registration to certain marks that fall within categories of words and shapes, including the following: the flag; the name, portrait, or signature of any living person without consent, or of a deceased US president during the lifetime of his widow; and immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter (in an earlier era, the phrase “Bubby Trap” for brassieres was denied registration).
Dilution, Tarnishment, and Blurring
Under the federal Trademark Dilution Act of 1995, companies with marks that dilute the value of a senior mark may be liable for damages. The act provides that owners of marks of significant value have property rights that should not be eroded, blurred, tarnished, or diluted in any way by another. But as a plaintiff, the holder of the mark must show (1) that it is a famous mark, (2) that the use of a similar mark is commercial, and (3) that such use causes dilution of the distinctive quality of the mark. Thus a T-shirt maker who promotes a red-and-white shirt bearing the mark Buttweiser may be liable to Anheuser-Busch, or a pornographic site called Candyland could be liable to Parker Brothers, the board game company. Interesting legal actions have already been brought under this act, including a case brought by Smuckers (maker of Uncrustable sandwiches) against Uncrustable vaping drip tips. Notice that unlike most prior trademark law, the purpose is not to protect the consumer from confusion as to the source or origin of the goods or services being sold; for example, no one going to the Candyland site would think that Parker Brothers was the source.
Acquiring Trademark Rights
For the first time in more than forty years, Congress, in 1988, changed the way in which trademarks can be secured. Under the Lanham Act, the fundamental means of obtaining a trademark was through use. The manufacturer or distributor actually must have placed the mark on its product—or on related displays, labels, shipping containers, advertisements, and the like—and then have begun selling the product. If the product was sold in interstate commerce, the trademark was entitled to protection under the Lanham Act (or if not, to protection under the common law of the state in which the product was sold).
Under the Trademark Law Revision Act of 1988, which went into effect in 1989, trademarks can be obtained in advance by registering with the PTO an intention to use the mark within six months (the applicant can gain extensions of up to thirty more months to put the mark into use). Once obtained, the trademark will be protected for ten years (before the 1988 revision, a federal trademark remained valid for twenty years); if after that time the mark is still being used, the registration can be renewed. Obtaining a trademark registration lies between obtaining patents and obtaining copyrights in difficulty. The PTO will not routinely register a trademark; it searches its records to ensure that the mark meets several statutory tests and does not infringe another mark. Those who feel that their own marks would be hurt by registration of a proposed mark may file an opposition proceeding with the PTO. Until 1990, the office received about 77,000 applications each year. With the change in procedure, some experts predicted that applications would rise by 30 percent.
In many foreign countries, use need not be shown to obtain trademark registration. It is common for some people in these countries to register marks that they expect to be valuable so that they can sell the right to use the mark to the company that established the mark’s value. Companies that expect to market abroad should register their marks early.
Loss of Rights
Trademark owners may lose their rights if they abandon the mark, if a patent or copyright expires on which the mark is based, or if the mark becomes generic. A mark is abandoned if a company goes out of business and ceases selling the product. Some marks are based on design patents; when the patent expires, the patent holder will not be allowed to extend the patent’s duration by arguing that the design or name linked with the design is a registrable trademark.
The most widespread difficulty that a trademark holder faces is the prospect of too much success: if a trademark comes to stand generically for the product itself, it may lose exclusivity in the mark. Famous examples are aspirin, escalator, and cellophane. The threat is a continual one. Trademark holders can protect themselves from their marks’ becoming generic in several ways.
- Use a descriptive term along with the trademark. For example, Rollerblade is careful to call its skates Rollerblade Inline Skates.
- Protest generic use of the mark in all publications by writing letters and taking out advertisements.
- Always put the words Trademark, Registered Trademark, or the symbol ® (meaning “registered”) next to the mark itself, which should be capitalized.
Trademark protection is federal, under the Lanham Act. Branding of corporate logos, names, and products is essential to business success, and understanding trademarks is pivotal to branding. A “mark” must be distinctive, arbitrary, or fanciful to merit protection: this means that it must not be generic or descriptive. Marks can be words, symbols, pictures, slogans, sounds, phrases, and even shapes. In the United States, rights to marks are obtained by registration and intent to use in commerce and must be renewed every ten years.
- How will Google protect its trademark, assuming that people begin using “google” as a verb substitute for “Internet search,” just like people began using the word “cellophane” for all brands of plastic wrap?
- Do a small amount of web searching and find out what “trade dress” protection is, and how it differs from trademark protection.
- LexisNexis is a brand for a database collection offered by Mead Data Central. Lexus is a high-end automobile. Can Lexus succeed in getting Mead Data Central to stop using “Lexis” as a mark?
- Explain why Congress would grant exclusive monopolies (patents) for certain periods of time.
- Explain the procedures for obtaining a patent, and how patent rights may be an issue where the invention is created by an employee.
- Understand who can sue for patent infringement, on what basis, and with what potential remedies.
Source of Authority and Duration
Patent and copyright law are federal, enacted by Congress under the power given by Article I of the Constitution “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Under current law, a patent gives an inventor exclusive rights to make, use, or sell an invention for twenty years. (If the patent is a design patent—protecting the appearance rather than the function of an item—the period is fourteen years.) In return for this limited monopoly, the inventor must fully disclose, in papers filed in the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), a complete description of the invention.
What May Be Patented
The patent law says that “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof” may be patented.A process is a “process, art or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.” A process for making rolled steel, for example, qualifies as a patentable process under the statute. A machine is a particular apparatus for achieving a certain result or carrying out a distinct process—lathes, printing presses, motors, and the cotton gin are all examples of the hundreds of thousands of machines that have received US patents since the first Patent Act in 1790. A manufacture is an article or a product, such as a television, an automobile, a telephone, or a lightbulb. A composition of matter is a new arrangement of elements so that the resulting compound, such as a metal alloy, is not found in nature. In Commissioner of Patents v. Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court said that even living organisms—in particular, a new “genetically engineered” bacterium that could “eat” oil spills—could be patented. The Chakrabarty decision has spawned innovation: a variety of small biotechnology firms have attracted venture capitalists and other investors.
According to the PTO, gene sequences are patentable subject matter, provided they are isolated from their natural state and processed in a way that separates them from other molecules naturally occurring with them. Gene patenting, always controversial, generated new controversy when the PTO issued a patent to Human Genome Sciences, Inc. for a gene found to serve as a platform from which the AIDS virus can infect cells of the body. Critics faulted the PTO for allowing “ownership” of a naturally occurring human gene and for issuing patents without requiring a showing of the gene’s utility. New guidelines from the PTO followed in 2000; these focused on requiring the applicant to make a strong showing on the utility aspect of patentability and somewhat diminished the rush of biotech patent requests.
There are still other categories of patentable subjects. An improvement is an alteration of a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter that satisfies one of the tests for patentability given later in this section. New, original ornamental designs for articles of manufacture are patentable (e.g., the shape of a lamp); works of art are not patentable but are protected under the copyright law. New varieties of cultivated or hybridized plants are also patentable, as are genetically modified strains of soybean, corn, or other crops.
What May Not Be Patented
Many things can be patented, but not (1) the laws of nature, (2) natural phenomena, and (3) abstract ideas, including algorithms (step-by-step formulas for accomplishing a specific task).
One frequently asked question is whether patents can be issued for computer software. The PTO was reluctant to do so at first, based on the notion that computer programs were not “novel”—the software program either incorporated automation of manual processes or used mathematical equations (which were not patentable). But in 1998, the Supreme Court held in Diamond v. Diehr that patents could be obtained for a process that incorporated a computer program if the process itself was patentable.
A business process can also be patentable, as the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in 1998 in State Street Bank and Trust v. Signature Financial Group, Inc. Signature Financial had a patent for a computerized accounting system that determined share prices through a series of mathematical calculations that would help manage mutual funds. State Street sued to challenge that patent. Signature argued that its model and process was protected, and the court of appeals upheld it as a “practical application of a mathematical, algorithm, formula, or calculation,” because it produces a “useful, concrete and tangible result.” Since State Street, many other firms have applied for business process patents. For example, Amazon.com obtained a business process patent for its “one-click” ordering system, a method of processing credit-card orders securely. (But see Amazon.com v. Barnesandnoble.com, in which the court of appeals rejected Amazon’s challenge to Barnesandnoble.com using its Express Land one-click ordering system.)
Tests for Patentability
Just because an invention falls within one of the categories of patentable subjects, it is not necessarily patentable. The Patent Act and judicial interpretations have established certain tests that must first be met. To approve a patent application, the PTO (as part of the Department of Commerce) will require that the invention, discovery, or process be novel, useful, and nonobvious in light of current technology.
Perhaps the most significant test of patentability is that of obviousness. The act says that no invention may be patented “if the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains.” This provision of the law has produced innumerable court cases, especially over improvement patents, when those who wish to use an invention on which a patent has been issued have refused to pay royalties on the grounds that the invention was obvious to anyone who looked.
Procedures for Obtaining a Patent
In general, the United States (unlike many other countries) grants a patent right to the first person to invent a product or process rather than to the first person to file for a patent on that product or process. As a practical matter, however, someone who invents a product or process but does not file immediately should keep detailed research notes or other evidence that would document the date of invention. An inventor who fails to apply for a patent within a year of that date would forfeit the rights granted to an inventor who had published details of the invention or offered it for sale. But until the year has passed, the PTO may not issue a patent to X if Y has described the invention in a printed publication here or abroad or the invention has been in public use or on sale in this country.
An inventor cannot obtain a patent automatically; obtaining a patent is an expensive and time-consuming process, and the inventor will need the services of a patent attorney, a highly specialized practitioner. The attorney will help develop the required specification, a description of the invention that gives enough detail so that one skilled in the art will be able to make and use the invention. After receiving an application, a PTO examiner will search the records and accept or reject the claim. Usually, the attorney will negotiate with the examiner and will rewrite and refine the application until it is accepted. A rejection may be appealed, first to the PTO’s Board of Appeals and then, if that fails, to the federal district court in the District of Columbia or to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the successor court to the old US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
Once a patent application has been filed, the inventor or a company to which she has assigned the invention may put the words “patent pending” on the invention. These words have no legal effect. Anyone is free to make the invention as long as the patent has not yet been issued. But they do put others on notice that a patent has been applied for. Once the patent has been granted, infringers may be sued even if the infringed has made the product and offered it for sale before the patent was granted.
Patent Ownership and Misuse
The patent holder is entitled to make and market the invention and to exclude others from doing so. Because the patent is a species of property, it may be transferred. The inventor may assign part or all of his interest in the patent or keep the property interest and license others to manufacture or use the invention in return for payments known as royalties. The license may be exclusive with one licensee, or the inventor may license many to exploit the invention. One important limitation on the inventor’s right to the patent interest is the so-called shop right. This is a right created by state courts on equitable grounds giving employers a nonexclusive royalty-free license to use any invention made by an employee on company time and with company materials. The shop right comes into play only when a company has no express or implied understanding with its employees. Most corporate laboratories have contractual agreements with employees about who owns the invention and what royalties will be paid.
Although a patent is a monopoly granted to the inventor or his assignee or licensee, the monopoly power is legally limited. An owner who misuses the patent may find that he will lose an infringement suit. One common form of misuse is to tie the patented good to some unpatented one—for example, a patented movie projector that will not be sold unless the buyer agrees to rent films supplied only by the manufacturer of the movie projector, or a copier manufacturer that requires buyers to purchase plain paper from it. Various provisions of the federal antitrust laws, including, specifically, Section 3 of the Clayton Act, outlaw certain kinds of tying arrangements. Another form of patent misuse is a provision in the licensing agreement prohibiting the manufacturer from also making competing products. Although the courts have held against several other types of misuse, the general principle is that the owner may not use his patent to restrain trade in unpatented goods.
Many different “things” are patentable, include gene sequences, business processes, and any other “useful invention.” The US Patent and Trademark Office acts on initial applications and may grant a patent to an applicant. The patent, which allows a limited-time monopoly, is for twenty years. The categories of patentable things include processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter, and improvements. Ideas, mental processes, naturally occurring substances, methods of doing business, printed matter, and scientific principles cannot be patented. Patent holders may sue for infringement and royalties from an infringer user.
- Calera, Inc. discovers a way to capture carbon dioxide emissions at a California power plant and use them to make cement. This is a win for the power company, which needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, and a win for Calera. Calera decides to patent this invention. What kind of patent would this be? A machine? A composition of matter? A manufacture?
- In your opinion, what is the benefit of allowing companies to isolate genetic material and claim a patent? What kind of patent would this be? A machine? A composition of matter? A manufacture?
- How could a “garage inventor,” working on her own, protect a patentable invention while yet demonstrating it to a large company that could bring the invention to market?
- Describe and explain copyrights, how to obtain one, and how they differ from trademarks.
- Explain the concept of fair use and describe its limits.
Definition and Duration
Copyright is the legal protection given to “authors” for their “writings.” Copyright law is federal; like patent law, its source lies in the Constitution. Copyright protects the expression of ideas in some tangible form, but it does not protect the ideas themselves. Under the 1976 Copyright Act as amended, a copyright in any work created after January 1, 1978, begins when the work is fixed in tangible form—for example, when a book is written down or a picture is painted—and generally lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years after his or her death. This is similar to copyright protection in many countries, but in some countries, the length of copyright protection is the life of the author plus 50 years. For copyrights owned by publishing houses, done as works for hire, common copyright expires 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is first. For works created before 1978, such as many of Walt Disney’s movies and cartoons, the US Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 provided additional protection of up to 95 years from publication date. Thus works created in 1923 by Disney would not enter the public domain until 2019 or after, unless the copyright had expired prior to 1998 or unless the Disney company released the work into the public domain. In general, after expiration of the copyright, the work enters the public domain.
In 1989, the United States signed the Berne Convention, an international copyright treaty. This law eliminated the need to place the symbol © or the word Copyright or the abbreviation Copr. on the work itself. Copyrights can (but need not) be registered with the US Copyright Office in Washington, DC.
Rights and Fair Use
A copyright gives its holder the right to prevent others from copying his or her work. The copyright holder has the exclusive right to reproduce the work in any medium (paper, film, sound recording), to perform it (e.g., in the case of a play), or to display it (a painting or film). A copyright also gives its holder the exclusive right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. Thus a playwright could not adapt to the stage a novelist’s book without the latter’s permission.
One major exception to the exclusivity of copyrights is the fair use doctrine. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides as follows:
Fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by section 106 of the copyright, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, the factors to be considered shall include–
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
These are broad guidelines. Accordingly, any copying could be infringement, and fair use could become a question of fact on a case-by-case basis. In determining fair use, however, courts have often considered the fourth factor (effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work) to be the most important.
Clear examples of fair use would be when book reviewers or writers quote passages from copyrighted books. Without fair use, most writing would be useless because it could not readily be discussed. But the doctrine of fair use grew more troublesome with the advent of plain-paper copiers and is now even more troublesome with electronic versions of copyrighted materials that are easily copied and distributed. The 1976 act took note of the new copier technology, listing “teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use)” as one application of fair use. The Copyright Office follows guidelines specifying just how far the copying may go—for example, multiple copies of certain works may be made for classroom use, but copies may not be used to substitute for copyrighted anthologies.
Verbatim use of a copyrighted work is easily provable. The more difficult question arises when the copyrighted work is altered in some way. As in patent law, the standard is one of substantial similarity.
To be subject to copyright, the writing must be “fixed” in some “tangible medium of expression.” A novelist who composes a chapter of her next book in her mind and tells it to a friend before putting it on paper could not stop the friend from rushing home, writing it down, and selling it (at least the federal copyright law would offer no protection; some states might independently offer a legal remedy, however).
The work also must be creative, at least to a minimal degree. Words and phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans, are not copyrightable; nor are symbols or designs familiar to the public. But an author who contributes her own creativity—like taking a photograph of nature—may copyright the resulting work, even if the basic elements of the composition were not of her making.
Finally, the work must be “original,” which means simply that it must have originated with the author. The law does not require that it be novel or unique. This requirement was summarized pithily by Judge Learned Hand: “If by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an author, and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats’s.” Sometimes the claim is made that a composer, for example, just happened to compose a tune identical or strikingly similar to a copyrighted song; rather than assume the unlikely coincidence that Judge Hand hypothesized, the courts will look for evidence that the alleged copier had access to the copyrighted song. If he did—for example, the song was frequently played on the air—he cannot defend the copying with the claim that it was unconscious, because the work would not then have been original.
Section 102 of the Copyright Act excludes copyright protection for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied.”
Einstein copyrighted books and monographs he wrote on the theory of relativity, but he could not copyright the famous formula E = mc2, nor could he prevent others from writing about the theory. But he could protect the particular way in which his ideas were expressed. In general, facts widely known by the public are not copyrightable, and mathematical calculations are not copyrightable. Compilations of facts may be copyrightable, if the way that they are coordinated or arranged results in a work that shows some originality. For example, compiled information about yachts listed for sale may qualify for copyright protection.
One of the most troublesome recent questions concerning expression versus ideas is whether a computer program may be copyrighted. After some years of uncertainty, the courts have accepted the copyrightability of computer programs. Now the courts are wrestling with the more difficult question of the scope of protection: what constitutes an “idea” and what constitutes its mere “expression” in a program.
How far the copyright law will protect particular software products is a hotly debated topic, sparked by a federal district court’s ruling in 1990 that the “look and feel” of Lotus 1-2-3’s menu system is copyrightable and was in fact infringed by Paperback Software’s VP-Planner, a competing spreadsheet. The case has led some analysts to “fear that legal code, rather than software code, is emerging as the factor that will determine which companies and products will dominate [the future]”.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed into law in 1998, implements two 1996 treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization. It criminalizes production and sale of devices or services intended to get around protective measures that control access to copyrighted works. In addition, the DMCA heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet. The DMCA amended Title 17 of the United States Code to extend the reach of copyright, while limiting the liability of the providers of online services for copyright infringement by their users.
Who May Obtain a Copyright?
With one important exception, only the author may hold the initial copyright, although the author may assign it or license any one or more of the rights conveyed by the copyright. This is a simple principle when the author has written a book or painted a picture. But the law is unclear in the case of a motion picture or a sound recording. Is the author the script writer, the producer, the performer, the director, the engineer, or someone else? As a practical matter, all parties involved spell out their rights by contract.
The exception, which frequently covers the difficulties just enumerated, is for works for hire. Any person employed to write—a journalist or an advertising jingle writer, for example—is not the “author.” For purposes of the statute, the employer is the author and may take out the copyright. When the employee is in fact an “independent contractor” and the work in question involves any one of nine types (book, movies, etc.) spelled out in the Copyright Act, the employer and the creator must spell out their entitlement to the copyright in a written agreement.
Obtaining a Copyright
Until 1978, a work could not be copyrighted unless it was registered in the Copyright Office or was published and unless each copy of the work carried a copyright notice, consisting of the word Copyright, the abbreviation Copr., or the common symbol ©, together with the date of first publication and the name of the copyright owner. Under the 1976 act, copyright became automatic whenever the work was fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., words on paper, images on film or videotape, sound on tape or compact disc), even if the work remained unpublished or undistributed. However, to retain copyright protection, the notice had to be affixed once the work was “published” and copies circulated to the public. After the United States entered the Berne Convention, an international treaty governing copyrights, Congress enacted the Berne Implementation Act, declaring that, effective in 1989, notice, even after publication, was no longer required.
Notice does, however, confer certain benefits. In the absence of notice, a copyright holder loses the right to receive statutory damages (an amount stated in the Copyright Act and not required to be proved, which are up to $150,000 per copyrighted work) if someone infringes the work. Also, although it is no longer required, an application and two copies of the work (for deposit in the Library of Congress) filed with the Copyright Office, in Washington, DC, will enable the copyright holder to file suit should the copyright be infringed. Unlike patent registration, which requires elaborate searching of Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) records, copyright registration does not require a reading of the work to determine whether it is an original creation or an infringement of someone else’s prior work. But copyright registration does not immunize the holder from an infringement suit. If a second work has been unlawfully copied from an earlier work, the second author’s copyright will not bar the infringed author from collecting damages and obtaining an injunction.
Copyright is the legal protection given to “authors” for their “writings.” It protects ideas in fixed, tangible form, not ideas themselves. Copyright protection can extend as long as 120 years from the date of creation or publication. Expression found in literary works, music, drama, film, art, sculpture, sound recordings, and the like may be copyrighted. The fair use doctrine limits the exclusivity of copyright in cases where scholars, critics, or teachers use only selected portions of the copyrighted material in a way that is unlikely to affect the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
- Explain how a list could be copyrightable.
- An author wrote a novel, Brunch at Bruno’s, in 1961. She died in 1989, and her heirs now own the copyright. When do the rights of the heirs come to an end? That is, when does Brunch at Bruno’s enter the public domain?
- Keith Bradsher writes a series of articles on China for the New York Times and is paid for doing so. Suppose he wants to leave the employ of the Times and be a freelance writer. Can he compile his best articles into a book, Changing Times in China, and publish it without the New York Times’s permission? Does it matter that he uses the word Times in his proposed title?
- Describe the difference between trade secrets and patents, and explain why a firm might prefer keeping a trade secret rather than obtaining a patent.
- Understand the dimensions of corporate espionage and the impact of the federal Economic Espionage Act.
Definition of Trade Secrets
A patent is an invention publicly disclosed in return for a monopoly. A trade secret is a means to a monopoly that a company hopes to maintain by preventing public disclosure. Why not always take out a patent? There are several reasons. The trade secret might be one that is not patentable, such as a customer list or an improvement that does not meet the tests of novelty or nonobviousness. A patent can be designed around; but if the trade secret is kept, its owner will be the exclusive user of it. Patents are expensive to obtain, and the process is extremely time consuming. Patent protection expires in twenty years, after which anyone is free to use the invention, but a trade secret can be maintained for as long as the secret is kept.
However, a trade secret is valuable only so long as it is kept secret. Once it is publicly revealed, by whatever means, anyone is free to use it. The critical distinction between a patent and a trade secret is this: a patent gives its owner the right to enjoin anyone who infringes it from making use of it, whereas a trade secret gives its “owner” the right to sue only the person who improperly took it or revealed it.
According to the Restatement of Torts, Section 757, Comment b, a trade secret may consist of
any formula, pattern, device or compilation of information which is used in one’s business, and which gives him an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know or use it. It may be a formula for a chemical compound, a process of manufacturing, treating or preserving materials, a pattern for a machine or other device, or a list of customers.…A trade secret is a process or device for continuous use in the operation of a business. Generally it relates to the production of goods, as, for example, a machine or formula for the production of an article.
Other types of trade secrets are customer information, pricing data, marketing methods, sources of supply, and secret technical know-how.
Elements of Trade Secrets
To be entitled to protection, a trade secret must be (1) original and (2) secret.
The trade secret must have a certain degree of originality, although not as much as would be necessary to secure a patent. For example, a principle or technique that is common knowledge does not become a protectable trade secret merely because a particular company taught it to one of its employees who now wants to leave to work for a competitor.
Some types of information are obviously secret, like the chemical formula that is jealously guarded through an elaborate security system within the company. But other kinds of information might not be secret, even though essential to a company’s business. For instance, a list of suppliers that can be devised easily by reading through the telephone directory is not secret. Nor is a method secret simply because someone develops and uses it, if no steps are taken to guard it. A company that circulates a product description in its catalog may not claim a trade secret in the design of the product if the description permits someone to do “reverse engineering.” A company that hopes to keep its processes and designs secret should affirmatively attempt to do so—for example, by requiring employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement covering the corporate trade secrets with which they work. However, a company need not go to every extreme to guard a trade secret.
Trade-secrets espionage has become a big business. To protect industrial secrets, US corporations spend billions on security arrangements. The line between competitive intelligence gathering and espionage can sometimes be difficult to draw. The problem is by no means confined to the United States; companies and nations all over the world have become concerned about theft of trade secrets to gain competitive advantage, and foreign governments are widely believed to be involved in espionage and cyberattacks.
Economic Espionage Act
The Economic Espionage Act (EEA) of 1996 makes the theft or misappropriation of a trade secret a federal crime. The act is aimed at protecting commercial information rather than classified national defense information. Two sorts of activities are criminalized. The first section of the actEconomic Espionage Act, 18 United States Code, Section 1831(a) (1996) criminalizes the misappropriation of trade secrets (including conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets and the subsequent acquisition of such misappropriated trade secrets) with the knowledge or intent that the theft will benefit a foreign power. Penalties for violation are fines of up to $500,000 per offense and imprisonment of up to fifteen years for individuals, and fines of up to $10 million for organizations.
The second section criminalizes the misappropriation of trade secrets related to or included in a product that is produced for or placed in interstate (including international) commerce, with the knowledge or intent that the misappropriation will injure the owner of the trade secret. Penalties for violation are imprisonment for up to ten years for individuals (no fines) and fines of up to US$5 million for organizations.
In addition to these specific penalties, the fourth section of the EEA also requires criminal forfeiture of (1) any proceeds of the crime and property derived from proceeds of the crime and (2) any property used, or intended to be used, in commission of the crime.
The EEA authorizes civil proceedings by the Department of Justice to enjoin violations of the act but does not create a private cause of action. This means that anyone believing they have been victimized must go through the US attorney general in order to obtain an injunction.
Trade secrets, if they can be kept, have indefinite duration and thus greater potential value than patents. Trade secrets can be any formula, pattern, device, process, or compilation of information to be used in a business. Customer information, pricing data, marketing methods, sources of supply, and technical know-how could all be trade secrets. State law has protected trade secrets, and federal law has provided criminal sanctions for theft of trade secrets. With the importance of digitized information, methods of theft now include computer hacking; theft of corporate secrets is a burgeoning global business that often involves cyberattacks.
- Wu Dang, based in Hong Kong, hacks into the Hewlett-Packard database and “steals” plans and specifications for HP’s latest products. The HP server is located in the United States. He sells this information to a Chinese company in Shanghai. Has he violated the US Economic Espionage Act?
- What are the advantages of keeping a formula as a trade secret rather than getting patent protection?
What is Copyrightable
802 F.3d 1012 (2015)
IKUTA, Circuit Judge:
We are asked to decide whether defendant Mark Towle infringed DC Comics’ exclusive rights under a copyright when he built and sold replicas of the Batmobile, as it appeared in the 1966 television show Batman and the 1989 film BATMAN. Holy copyright law, Batman!
DC Comics (DC) is the publisher and copyright owner of comic books featuring the story of the world-famous character, Batman. Since his first comic book appearance in 1939, the Caped Crusader has protected Gotham City from villains with the help of his sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder, his utility belt, and of course, the Batmobile.
Originally introduced in the Batman comic books in 1941, the Batmobile is a fictional, high-tech automobile that Batman employs as his primary mode of transportation. The Batmobile has varied in appearance over the years, but its name and key characteristics as Batman’s personal crime-fighting vehicle have remained consistent. Over the past eight decades, the comic books have continually depicted the Batmobile as possessing bat-like external features, ready to leap into action to assist Batman in his fight against Gotham’s most dangerous villains, and equipped with futuristic weaponry and technology that is “years ahead of anything else on wheels.”
Since its creation in the comic books, the Batmobile has also been depicted in numerous television programs and motion pictures. Two of these depictions are relevant to this case: the 1966 television series Batman, starring Adam West, and the 1989 motion picture BATMAN, starring Michael Keaton.
The 1966 Batman television series was the product of a licensing agreement between DC’s predecessor, National Periodical Publications, Inc. (National Periodical) and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). In 1965, National Periodical entered into a licensing agreement with ABC (the 1965 ABC Agreement) in which it granted ABC “an exclusive license to produce a series of half-hour television programs… based upon the literary property consisting of the comic book and comic strip stories entitled `Batman’ … including the characters therein.” This exclusive right included the right to “translate, adapt, [or] arrange” the Batman literary property “to such extent as ABC may desire” in the making of the television programs, and the right to secure copyrights in the television programs produced. The agreement also provided that “[a]ll rights in the property not specifically granted to ABC are hereby reserved to and may be exercised by National at all times during the term of this agreement” except as otherwise expressly stated in the agreement. National Periodical’s reserved rights included “[a[/footnote] ll rights of publication,” and the exclusive merchandising rights to all products manufactured or distributed under the name of any character in the Batman comic books.
Under this agreement, ABC (through a series of sub-licensing agreements) produced the 1966 television show starring Adam West as Batman. In addition to Batman, Robin, and the use of visual onomatopoeia that flashed on screen during fight scenes — Pow! Boff! Thwack! — the television series featured the Batmobile. The design of the Batmobile did not directly copy any iterations of the Batmobile as it appeared in the comic books. As in the comic books, however, the Batmobile in the 1966 television show maintained a bat-like appearance and was equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and technology.
In 1979, DC again licensed its rights in the Batman literary property, this time to Batman Productions, Inc. (BPI)…. BPI subsequently sub-licensed its rights to Warner Bros., Inc., who eventually (through a number of additional sub-licensing agreements) produced the 1989 motion picture BATMAN, starring Michael Keaton as Batman. Like the 1966 television series, the 1989 motion picture featured a Batmobile that was physically distinct from the Batmobile portrayed in the comic books and the 1966 television series. Nonetheless, the Batmobile as portrayed in the motion picture retained a bat-like physical appearance and was again equipped with futuristic technology and crime-fighting weaponry.
Defendant Mark Towle produces replicas of the Batmobile as it appeared in both the 1966 television show and 1989 motion picture as part of his business at Gotham Garage, where he manufactures and sells replicas of automobiles featured in motion pictures or television programs. Towle concedes that these replicas copy the designs of the Batmobile as depicted on television and in the motion picture, though they do not copy every feature. Towle then sells these vehicles for approximately $90,000 to “avid car collectors” who “know the entire history of the Batmobile.” Towle also sells kits that allow customers to modify their cars to look like the Batmobile, as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 motion picture.
Before DC brought this lawsuit, Towle advertised each replica as the “Batmobile,” and used the domain name batmobilereplicas.com to market his business. He also advertised that the replicas included such features as “custom bat insignias, wheel bats, [and a] bat steering wheel,” and would attract attention due to the fame of the Batmobile. By his own admission, Towle is not authorized by DC to manufacture or sell any products bearing DC’s copyright or trademark.
In May 2011, DC filed this action against Towle, alleging, among other things, causes of action for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition arising from Towle’s manufacture and sale of the Batmobile replicas. Towle denied that he had infringed upon DC’s copyright….
In order to prevail on its claim for copyright infringement, DC must prove that it owns a copyright in the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television series and 1989 movie, and that Towle infringed that copyright by creating unauthorized replicas.
To the Batmobile!
We begin with the question whether the Batmobile, as it appears in the comic books, television series, and motion picture, is entitled to copyright protection. In the context of copyright law, where, as here, “the question requires us to consider legal concepts in the mix of fact and law and to exercise judgment about the values that animate legal principles, … the question should be classified as one of law and reviewed de novo.” Harper House, Inc. v. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 889 F.2d 197, 201 (9th Cir.1989).
Courts have recognized that copyright protection extends not only to an original work as a whole, but also to “sufficiently distinctive” elements, like comic book characters, contained within the work. Although comic book characters are not listed in the Copyright Act, we have long held that such characters are afforded copyright protection.
Not every comic book, television, or motion picture character is entitled to copyright protection. We have held that copyright protection is available only “for characters that are especially distinctive.” Halicki, 547 F.3d at 1224. To meet this standard, a character must be “sufficiently delineated” and display “consistent, widely identifiable traits.” A masked magician “dressed in standard magician garb” whose role “is limited to performing and revealing the magic tricks,” for example, is not “an `especially distinct’ character differing from an ordinary magician in a manner that warrants copyright protection.” Further, characters that have been “lightly sketched” and lack descriptions may not merit copyright protection.
Similarly, district courts have determined that James Bond, Batman, and Godzilla are characters protected by copyright, despite their changes in appearance. In each instance, courts have deemed the persistence of a character’s traits and attributes to be key to determining whether the character qualifies for copyright protection. [W]hile the character “Godzilla” may have a different appearance from time to time, it is entitled to copyright protection because it “is always a pre-historic, fire-breathing, gigantic dinosaur alive and well in the modern world.” In short, although James Bond’s, Godzilla’s, and Batman’s “costume and character have evolved over the years, [they have] retained unique, protectable characteristics” and are therefore entitled to copyright protection as characters.
We read these precedents as establishing a three-part test for determining whether a character in a comic book, television program, or motion picture is entitled to copyright protection. First, the character must generally have “physical as well as conceptual qualities.” Second, the character must be “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears. Considering the character as it has appeared in different productions, it must display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, although the character need not have a consistent appearance. Third, the character must be “especially distinctive” and “contain some unique elements of expression.”It cannot be a stock character such as a magician in standard magician garb. Even when a character lacks sentient attributes and does not speak (like a car), it can be a protectable character if it meets this standard.
We now apply this framework to this case. First, because the Batmobile has appeared graphically in comic books, and as a three-dimensional car in television series and motion pictures, it has “physical as well as conceptual qualities,” and is thus not a mere literary character.
Second, the Batmobile is “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears. As the district court determined, the Batmobile has maintained distinct physical and conceptual qualities since its first appearance in the comic books in 1941. In addition to its status as “a highly-interactive vehicle, equipped with high-tech gadgets and weaponry used to aid Batman in fighting crime,” the Batmobile is almost always bat-like in appearance, with a bat-themed front end, bat wings extending from the top or back of the car, exaggerated fenders, a curved windshield, and bat emblems on the vehicle. This bat-like appearance has been a consistent theme throughout the comic books, television series, and motion picture, even though the precise nature of the bat-like characteristics have changed from time to time.
The Batmobile also has consistent character traits and attributes. No matter its specific physical appearance, the Batmobile is a “crime-fighting” car with sleek and powerful characteristics that allow Batman to maneuver quickly while he fights villains. In the comic books, the Batmobile is described as waiting “[l]ike an impatient steed straining at the reins… shiver[ing] as its super-charged motor throbs with energy” before it “tears after the fleeing hoodlums” an instant later. Elsewhere, the Batmobile “leaps away and tears up the street like a cyclone,” and at one point “twin jets of flame flash out with thunderclap force, and the miracle car of the dynamic duo literally flies through the air!” Like its comic book counterpart, the Batmobile depicted in both the 1966 television series and the 1989 motion picture possesses “jet engine[s] ” and flame-shooting tubes that undoubtedly give the Batmobile far more power than an ordinary car. Furthermore, the Batmobile has an ability to maneuver that far exceeds that of an ordinary car. In the 1966 television series, the Batmobile can perform an “emergency bat turn” via reverse thrust rockets. Likewise, in the 1989 motion picture, the Batmobile can enter “Batmissile” mode, in which the Batmobile sheds “all material outside [the] central fuselage” and reconfigures its “wheels and axles to fit through narrow openings.”
Equally important, the Batmobile always contains the most up-to-date weaponry and technology. At various points in the comic book, the Batmobile contains a “hot-line phone … directly to Commissioner Gordon’s office” maintained within the dashboard compartment, a “special alarm” that foils the Joker’s attempt to steal the Batmobile, and even a complete “mobile crime lab” within the vehicle. Likewise, the Batmobile in the 1966 television series possesses a “Bing-Bong warning bell,” a mobile Bat-phone, a “Batscope, complete with [a] TV-like viewing screen on the dash,” and a “Bat-ray.” Similarly, the Batmobile in the 1989 motion picture is equipped with a “pair of forward-facing Browning machine guns,” “spherical bombs,” “chassis-mounted shinbreakers,” and “side-mounted disc launchers.”
Because the Batmobile, as it appears in the comic books as well as in the 1966 television show and 1989 motion picture, displays “consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes,” the second prong of the character analysis is met here.
Third, the Batmobile is “especially distinctive” and contains unique elements of expression. In addition to its status as Batman’s loyal bat-themed sidekick complete with the character traits and physical characteristics described above, the Batmobile also has its unique and highly recognizable name. It is not merely a stock character.
Accordingly, applying our three-part test, we conclude that the Batmobile is a character that qualifies for copyright protection….
As Batman so sagely told Robin, “In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential.” Batman: The Penguin Goes Straight, (Greenway Productions television broadcast March 23, 1966). Here, we conclude that the Batmobile character is the property of DC, and Towle infringed upon DC’s property rights when he produced unauthorized derivative works of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 motion picture. Accordingly, we affirm the district court.
- What is the economic rationale for protecting cartoon entities like the Batmobile?
- Could Towley have argued fair use?
- Under the standards in this case, would the Enterprise (from Star Trek) qualify for copyright protection?
801 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2015)
(The video at issue is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1KfJHFWlhQ. It’s worth watching for context.)
TALLMAN, Circuit Judge:
Stephanie Lenz filed suit under 17 U.S.C. § 512(f) — part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) — against Universal Music Corp., Universal Music Publishing, Inc., and Universal Music Publishing Group (collectively “Universal”). She alleges Universal misrepresented in a takedown notification that her 29-second home video (the “video”) constituted an infringing use of a portion of a composition by the Artist known as Prince, which Universal insists was unauthorized by the law. Her claim boils down to a question of whether copyright holders have been abusing the extrajudicial takedown procedures provided for in the DMCA by declining to first evaluate whether the content qualifies as fair use. We hold that the statute requires copyright holders to consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, and that failure to do so raises a triable issue as to whether the copyright holder formed a subjective good faith belief that the use was not authorized by law. We affirm the denial of the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment….
On February 7, 2007, Lenz uploaded to YouTube a 29-second home video of her two young children in the family kitchen dancing to the song Let’s Go Crazy by Prince…. She titled the video “`Let’s Go Crazy’ #1.” About four seconds into the video, Lenz asks her thirteen month-old son “what do you think of the music?” after which he bobs up and down while holding a push toy.
At the time Lenz posted the video, Universal was Prince’s publishing administrator responsible for enforcing his copyrights. To accomplish this objective with respect to YouTube, Robert Allen, Universal’s head of business affairs, assigned Sean Johnson, an assistant in the legal department, to monitor YouTube on a daily basis. Johnson searched YouTube for Prince’s songs and reviewed the video postings returned by his online search query. When reviewing such videos, he evaluated whether they “embodied a Prince composition” by making “significant use of … the composition, specifically if the song was recognizable, was in a significant portion of the video or was the focus of the video.” According to Allen, “[t] he general guidelines are that … we review the video to ensure that the composition was the focus and if it was we then notify YouTube that the video should be removed.”
Johnson contrasted videos that met this criteria to those “that may have had a second or less of a Prince song, literally a one line, half line of Prince song” or “were shot in incredibly noisy environments, such as bars, where there could be a Prince song playing deep in the background … to the point where if there was any Prince composition embodied … in those videos that it was distorted beyond reasonable recognition.” None of the video evaluation guidelines explicitly include consideration of the fair use doctrine.
When Johnson reviewed Lenz’s video, he recognized Let’s Go Crazy immediately. He noted that it played loudly in the background throughout the entire video. Based on these details, the video’s title, and Lenz’s query during the video asking if her son liked the song, he concluded that Prince’s song “was very much the focus of the video.” As a result, Johnson decided the video should be included in a takedown notification sent to YouTube that listed more than 200 YouTube videos Universal believed to be making unauthorized use of Prince’s songs. The notice included a “good faith belief” statement as required by 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3)(A)(v): “We have a good faith belief that the above-described activity is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.”
After receiving the takedown notification, YouTube removed the video and sent Lenz an email on June 5, 2007, notifying her of the removal. On June 7, 2007, Lenz attempted to restore the video by sending a counter-notification to YouTube pursuant to § 512(g)(3). After YouTube provided this counter-notification to Universal per § 512(g)(2)(B), Universal protested the video’s reinstatement because Lenz failed to properly acknowledge that her statement was made under penalty of perjury, as required by § 512(g)(3)(C). Universal’s protest reiterated that the video constituted infringement because there was no record that “either she or YouTube were ever granted licenses to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform or otherwise exploit the Composition.” The protest made no mention of fair use. After obtaining pro bono counsel, Lenz sent a second counter-notification on June 27, 2007, which resulted in YouTube’s reinstatement of the video in mid-July.
Effective on October 28, 1998, the DMCA added new sections to existing copyright law by enacting five Titles, only one of which is relevant here: Title II — Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act — now codified in 17 U.S.C. § 512. Sections 512(c), (f), and (g) are at the heart of the parties’ dispute.
Section 512(c) permits service providers, e.g., YouTube or Google, to avoid copyright infringement liability for storing users’ content if — among other requirements — the service provider “expeditiously” removes or disables access to the content after receiving notification from a copyright holder that the content is infringing. Section 512(c)(3)(A) sets forth the elements that such a “takedown notification” must contain. These elements include identification of the copyrighted work, identification of the allegedly infringing material, and, critically, a statement that the copyright holder believes in good faith the infringing material “is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.” The procedures outlined in § 512(c) are referred to as the DMCA’s “takedown procedures.”
To avoid liability for disabling or removing content, the service provider must notify the user of the takedown. The user then has the option of restoring the content by sending a counter-notification, which must include a statement of “good faith belief that the material was removed or disabled as a result of mistake or misidentification….” Upon receipt of a valid counter-notification, the service provider must inform the copyright holder of the counter-notification and restore the content within “not less than 10, nor more than 14, business days,” unless the service provider receives notice that the copyright holder has filed a lawsuit against the user seeking to restrain the user’s infringing behavior. The procedures outlined in § 512(g) are referred to as the DMCA’s “put-back procedures.”
If an entity abuses the DMCA, it may be subject to liability under § 512(f). That section provides: “Any person who knowingly materially misrepresents under this section — (1) that material or activity is infringing, or (2) that material or activity was removed or disabled by mistake or misidentification, shall be liable for any damages….” Id. § 512(f). Subsection (1) generally applies to copyright holders and subsection (2) generally applies to users. Only subsection (1) is at issue here.
We must first determine whether 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3)(A)(v) requires copyright holders to consider whether the potentially infringing material is a fair use of a copyright under 17 U.S.C. § 107 before issuing a takedown notification.
Fair use is not just excused by the law, it is wholly authorized by the law. In 1976, Congress codified the application of a four-step test for determining the fair use of copyrighted works:
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —
1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2, the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
17 U.S.C. § 107. The statute explains that the fair use of a copyrighted work is permissible because it is a non-infringing use….
Universal faces liability if it knowingly misrepresented in the takedown notification that it had formed a good faith belief the video was not authorized by the law, i.e., did not constitute fair use. Here, Lenz presented evidence that Universal did not form any subjective belief about the video’s fair use — one way or another — because it failed to consider fair use at all, and knew that it failed to do so. Universal nevertheless contends that its procedures, while not formally labeled consideration of fair use, were tantamount to such consideration. Because the DMCA requires consideration of fair use prior to sending a takedown notification, a jury must determine whether Universal’s actions were sufficient to form a subjective good faith belief about the video’s fair use or lack thereof.
To be clear, if a copyright holder ignores or neglects our unequivocal holding that it must consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, it is liable for damages under § 512(f)….
Copyright holders cannot shirk their duty to consider — in good faith and prior to sending a takedown notification — whether allegedly infringing material constitutes fair use, a use which the DMCA plainly contemplates as authorized by the law. That this step imposes responsibility on copyright holders is not a reason for us to reject it.
AFFIRMED. Each party shall bear its own costs.
- Conduct your own fair use analysis of the video. E.g., does the video have any effect on the market for Prince’s music?
- What are the costs and benefits of imposing the duty on copyright holders to examine content for fair use?
Summary and Exercises
The products of the human mind are at the root of all business, but they are legally protectable only to a certain degree. Inventions that are truly novel may qualify for a twenty-year patent; the inventor may then prohibit anyone from using the art (machine, process, manufacture, and the like) or license it on his own terms. A business may sue a person who improperly gives away its legitimate trade secrets, but it may not prevent others from using the unpatented trade secret once publicly disclosed. Writers or painters, sculptors, composers, and other creative artists may generally protect the expression of their ideas for the duration of their lives plus seventy years, as long as the ideas are fixed in some tangible medium. That means that they may prevent others from copying their words (or painting, etc.), but they may not prevent anyone from talking about or using their ideas. Finally, one who markets a product or service may protect its trademark or service or other mark that is distinctive or has taken on a secondary meaning, but may lose it if the mark becomes the generic term for the goods or services.
- Samuel Morse filed claims in the US Patent Office for his invention of the telegraph and also for the “use of the motive power of the electric or galvanic current…however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs or letters at any distances.” For which claim, if any, was he entitled to a patent? Why?
- In 1957, an inventor dreamed up and constructed a certain new kind of computer. He kept his invention a secret. Two years later, another inventor who conceived the same machine filed a patent application. The first inventor, learning of the patent application, filed for his own patent in 1963. Who is entitled to the patent, assuming that the invention was truly novel and not obvious? Why?
- A large company discovered that a small company was infringing one of its patents. It wrote the small company and asked it to stop. The small company denied that it was infringing. Because of personnel changes in the large company, the correspondence file was lost and only rediscovered eight years later. The large company sued. What would be the result? Why?
- Clifford Witter was a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Cleveland. As a condition of employment, he signed a contract not to work for a competitor. Subsequently, he was hired by the Fred Astaire Dancing Studios, where he taught the method that he had learned at Arthur Murray. Arthur Murray sued to enforce the noncompete contract. What would be result? What additional information, if any, would you need to know to decide the case?
- Greenberg worked for Buckingham Wax as its chief chemist, developing chemical formulas for products by testing other companies’ formulas and modifying them. Brite Products bought Buckingham’s goods and resold them under its own name. Greenberg went to work for Brite, where he helped Brite make chemicals substantially similar to the ones it had been buying from Buckingham. Greenberg had never made any written or oral commitment to Buckingham restricting his use of the chemical formulas he developed. May Buckingham stop Greenberg from working for Brite? May it stop him from working on formulas learned while working at Buckingham? Why?
- Which of the following cannot be protected under patent, copyright, or trademark law?(a) a synthesized molecule
(b) a one-line book title
(c) a one-line advertising jingle
(d) a one-word company name
- Which of the following cannot be protected under patent, copyright, or trademark law?(a) a synthesized molecule
- Which of the following does not expire by law?
(a) a closely guarded trade secret not released to the public
(b) a patent granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office
(c) a copyright registered in the US Copyright Office
(d) a federal trademark registered under the Lanham Act
- A sculptor casts a marble statue of a three-winged bird. To protect against copying, the sculptor can obtain which of the following?
(a) a patent
(b) a trademark
(c) a copyright
(d) none of the above
- A stock analyst discovers a new system for increasing the value of a stock portfolio. He may protect against use of his system by other people by securing
(a) a patent
(b) a copyright
(c) a trademark
(d) none of the above
- A company prints up its customer list for use by its sales staff. The cover page carries a notice that says “confidential.” A rival salesman gets a copy of the list. The company can sue to recover the list because the list is
(c) a trade secret
(d) none of the above
- Which of the following does not expire by law?
Watch a video lecture: https://youtu.be/IvkrZnNu5tY
YouTube videos referenced in the lecture:
Don’t Say Velcro: https://youtu.be/rRi8LptvFZY
Honest Trailers: Divergent: https://youtu.be/qPUZo3dQSEM
Napoleon Dynamite Dance: https://youtu.be/TcWPiHjIExA
Let’s Go Crazy: https://youtu.be/N1KfJHFWlhQ
A Fair(y) Use Tale: https://youtu.be/CJn_jC4FNDo
- E.g., Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (2020), at 5 (discussing how a theory of borders and a theory of property rights are central to political organization: "What is a person allowed to own? Can one person own others? Can he or she own land, buildings, firms, natural resources, knowledge, financial assets, and public debt? ... How should ownership be transmitted across generations?"). ↵
- Intangible personal property whose major forms are patents, copyrights, and trademarks. ↵
- Defined by the federal Lanham Act of 1946 as “any word, name, symbol, or device or any combination thereof adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify his goods and distinguish them from goods manufactured or sold by others.” ↵
- 15 United States Code, Section 1127. ↵
- A mark placed on a product or used in connection with a service that signifies the product or service as having met the standard set by the certifying entity. ↵
- A descriptive or generic word or phrase that would otherwise not qualify for trademark protection may be eligible once it acquires secondary meaning—that is, that the origin of the goods or services becomes identified with a particular source or provider and the mark makes that connection in the public’s mind. ↵
- U.S. Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com, 591 U.S. (2020). ↵
- Miller Brewing Co. v. Falstaff Brewing Corp., 655 F.2d 5 (1st Cir. 1981). ↵
- Those who feel that their own marks would be hurt by registration of a proposed mark may file an opposition proceeding in the US Patent and Trademark Office. ↵
- 35 United States Code, Section 101. ↵
- A “means devised for the production of a given result”—for example, a process for making steel. ↵
- 35 United States Code, Section 101. ↵
- 444 U.S. 1028 (1980). ↵
- 450 U.S. 175 (1981). ↵
- 149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998). ↵
- 239 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2001) ↵
- Once a copyright has expired, the material enters the public domain, meaning that no one can claim exclusive rights in the material. ↵
- In 2020, the Supreme Court took a major step in expanding access to legal resources by deciding that state laws and their annotations could not be copyrighted. See https://web.archive.org/web/20200430142325/https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/georgia-state-law-copyright-lexis-nexis-supreme-court.html) for discussion. ↵
- Use of copyrighted material in criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research that does not significantly reduce the market for the copyrighted material. ↵
- 17 United States Code, Section 107. ↵
- Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 81 F.2d 49 (2d Cir. 1936). ↵
- 17 United States Code, Section 102. ↵
- BUC International Corp. v. International Yacht Council, Ltd., 489 F.3d 1129 (11th Cir. 2007). ↵
- Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp., 714 F.2d 1240 (3d Cir. 1983). ↵
- Lotus Development Corp. v. Paperback Software International, 740 F.Supp. 37 (D. Mass. 1990). ↵
- ”Peter H. Lewis, “When Computing Power Is Generated by the Lawyers,” New York Times, July 22 1990. ↵
- Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 109 S.Ct. 2166 (1989). ↵
- A process, chemical formula, list, plan, or mechanism known only to an employer and those employees who need to know in order to use it in the business. ↵
- Economic Espionage Act, 18 United States Code, Section 1832 (1996). ↵
- Economic Espionage Act, 18 United States Code, Section 1834 (1996). ↵