The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Is Caterpillar Going Too Far To Protect Its Trademarks?

A thousand years from now, the legends will say that cats invented the internet as part of their plan. Of course, sophisticated scholars will snort, scoff and explain, “Actually, cats only invented the meme.”

If that is funny, it’s mostly because of the ubiquity of cats in 21st century culture. Domesticated felines have been a dominant, widely-recognized force on the internet. My evaluation of the Caterpillar v Cat & Cloud trademark dispute is that it shows how the internet affects trademark strategies (a break from the persistent and well-established analysis of how the internet has affected copyright strategies). I think it also raises an interesting, esoteric question about truncated marks and interpretation of meaning.

I think Caterpillar has two problems: 1) Cat is a really terrible mark in a cat-crazed culture, 2) The truncated mark foists cat troubles on them

Caterpillar’s Trademarks

It’s important to protect trademarks. Trademarks, arguably more so than other IP, have a way of slipping away if you leave them unattended. Copyrights and patents eventually expire, but trademarks last as long as they are used, maintained, and defended. A trademark can become generic, or it can be slowly encroached on in ways that make it harder to defend later. Caterpillar understands the importance of trademark vigilance, and has initiated at least two major trademark proceedings in the last few years, following a significant number of new trademark registrations in 2015. (See CAT Registrations: 4804263-275. All filed in 2014 and issued in 2015.)

PetraCat, An Energy Services Company

In April 2015, Caterpillar and PetraCat argued before the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB) on the question of whether PetraCat’s trademark was too close to Caterpillar’s trademark. Caterpillar opposed the registration of PetraCat’s mark out of concern that consumers would be confused by the similarity of the marks. It was an interesting question with reasonable arguments from both sides, but the TTAB ultimately concluded that there was enough similarity to be concerned about consumer confusion.

 

Cat & Cloud, a Coffee Shoppe

In August 2018, Caterpillar filed a cancellation proceeding against Cat & Cloud, a coffee shop based in Santa Cruz, CA. The easy criticism to make is that there is no likelihood of confusion between the goods or services of these companies, but that criticism would be misguided. Trademarks are registered with the USPTO according to categories (called “classes”). Caterpillar is not concerned about the use of trademarks with respect to providing beverages; Caterpillar is concerned about the class of goods that the two companies share: shoes, hats, t-shirts, and other merchandise. This at least establishes some overlap about which there is even fathomable confusion or contention—but is Caterpillar reasonable for pursuing a cancellation proceeding?

 

When discussing any trademark dispute, two subjects are virtually unavoidable: the strength of the marks and the likelihood of confusion.

 

Trademark Strength: Ranking Your Advertising Department’s Imagination

Trademark strength (or distinctiveness) can be thought of as existing along a spectrum that runs from “weak” on one end and “strong” on the other.

Fanciful – When you make up a word that has no other meaning in the language (Xerox, Frisbee)

Arbitrary – When you pick a word that already exists and has a meaning, but has nothing to do with your goods or services (Apple, for a computer company)

Suggestive – When you use words that are related to your goods or services, but don’t quite describe them.

Descriptive – When your trademark more or less describes your goods or services.

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Generic (no protection) – When your trademark is the word everyone uses for your product, and then you lose trademark protection because the language has claimed your trademark as its own. This happens most tragically when a fanciful mark dominates the market too well. Aspirin is the seminal example of a trademark lost to genericism. Xerox corporation fights this risk, as does Google. Marks frequently at risk for this include Band-Aid, Frisbee, Velcro, and anything that everyone you know calls by its trademark name even when referring to the general good or service.

So, how do we rate these marks?

I would argue that Caterpillar’s full mark is descriptive, as it describes a style of tread-and-wheel movement for heavy machinery. (I could also see the argument that Caterpillar is a suggestive mark, because it could be said to suggest to the mind the slow and steady motion of a grub… but I’m not entirely convinced.) On the other hand, the mark “CAT” is… well, truncated. It wouldn’t even be part of Caterpillar’s trademark portfolio if it weren’t for the fact that it’s just the first three letters of the word “caterpillar.”  But “cats,” conceptually, have nothing to do with Caterpillar’s business.

And this is where Caterpillar’s problems start.

Caterpillar is not interested in aligning their branding with felines- Caterpillar is interested in the first three letters of their company name. As a mark, it’s arbitrary (insofar as cats have no conceptual relationship with bulldozers or cranes—though maybe there’s a long-shot argument that cats sometimes dig, and some of Caterpillar’s machines dig). But it’s only an arbitrary mark if Caterpillar can claim the feline meaning of “cat.” The recurring question that determines a lot about Caterpillar’s mark is what the mark actually means.

Here’s the most interesting question in this dispute that I’d like to see the USPTO answer: when a truncated mark happens to spell a new word that has no common meaning with the original mark, does the truncated mark adopt the meaning(s) connected with the truncated mark as though that mark was not a truncated mark? To put that in context: does Caterpillar’s “CAT” mark mean “a feline” or does it mean “short for caterpillar”? If Caterpillar can claim the new meaning, this could elevate their mark strength from “Suggestive/Descriptive” to “Arbitrary.”

On the other hand, “Cat & Cloud” is either arbitrary (because neither cats nor clouds have anything to do with coffee) or suggestive (because cuddly cats and cloudy, overcast whether evoke an image that seems more complete with a warm cup of tea or coffee). If it is suggestive, it is one of the most abstractly suggestive marks I’ve seen. If it is arbitrary, it is one of the more thematically-attuned marks I’ve seen.

 

Likelihood of Confusion: The Quintessence of Trademark Disputes

Almost every trademark dispute comes down to an examination of the likelihood of consumer confusion.

The Likelihood of Confusion Factors Are:

Relatedness of Goods or Services

Similarity of Marks

Similarity In Appearance

Similarity In Sound

Similarity In Meaning

Design Marks

Likely to Deceive

The actual goods and services of these two companies are far apart. However, the subject matter at issue is the merchandise that is ancillary to both businesses. As far as the trademark analysis is concerned, a shoe is a shoe, and a t-shirt is a t-shirt, so the goods are considered related for the purposes of this analysis. I think there is still some argument to be made for Cat & Cloud that the shoes themselves might be very distinguishable (as I understand it, Caterpillar shoes tend to be steel-toed boots designed for rough construction work, while Cat & Cloud makes lighter-wear, everyday walking shoes). A significant distinction between shoes might be enough to argue that there is less likelihood of confusion.

The marks display a weak similarity. Both marks contain the word “cat,” though the shortness and commonplace nature of the word make this barely noteworthy. The inclusion of a substantive element with “Cat” is sufficient to establish the marks as dissimilar. This also addresses questions regarding similarity in sound and in meaning.

Similarity in appearance only seems plausible if the words “& cloud” are significantly smaller than the word “Cat” in the mark of the defendant. Furthermore, to address the design elements, Caterpillar has carefully cultivated a stylized typeface and design that is distinct and recognizable and, to my understanding, this has not been remotely imitated by Cat & Cloud.

To the factor of similarity in meaning: this is sufficiently addressed in my analysis regarding mark similarity, but I think there is an additional point to be made. Given the context of the trademark “CAT” for the company Caterpillar, it is not clear on its face that the plaintiff’s truncated mark is actually intended to mean or signify a member of the taxonomic family felidae. I don’t think this matters much because of the dissimilarity of the marks, but I am not convinced that there is actually any similarity in meaning. I bring this up because I think it points to the central, recurring problem for Caterpillar’s trademark.

Finally, it seems profoundly unlikely that either mark will serve to deceive consumers. It is truly difficult to imagine a serious scenario in which a consumer seeks out a hat or t-shirt sporting the trademark of one company and mistakenly purchases a product from the other company.

 

Bonus Find: Google Hints at a Huge Branding Problem for Caterpillar

While researching for this blog post, Google offered me additional helpful information regarding other inquiries about Caterpillar, Inc. Google indicates that the number one question that average users have about Caterpillar is whether it is also Cat:

 

Caterpillar problem

 

That is a huge problem. That is a failure of branding. That is the “Where’s the Beef?” advertisement all over again. (An enormously popular advertisement, yet consumers failed to correctly identify the advertisement with the correct brand, product, or company.) Maybe Caterpillar is scrambling to bat down other trademarks in the hopes that consumers will know who they are if they are the only company left with a cat-related trademark.

This is a bitterly ironic discovery. This lack of brand understanding isn’t Cat & Cloud’s fault. It isn’t anyone fault besides Caterpillar’s. If consumers don’t connect a trademark to a company, it doesn’t matter how thoroughly that company defends the trademark. Caterpillar doesn’t have a likelihood of confusion problem with competitors or other companies outside of their industry. Caterpillar has a likelihood of confusion problem with itself. Maybe marketing should work on reconciling the “CAT” and the “Caterpillar” before the company invests in aggressive trademark protection.

Perhaps this confusion is the effect of Caterpillar’s own identity crisis: Is this a Caterpillar company or is this a Cat company? Caterpillar might resolve a lot of its problems if it picked one animal and stuck to it. Perhaps Caterpillar set itself up for an IP portfolio headache by stretching its trademarks as far as its goods when it decided to become a clothing and heavy machinery company that is known as two completely different kinds of animals.

 

The Charitable Interpretation

Despite the bad press Caterpillar is getting, I think there is an empathetic viewpoint: Caterpillar is actually in a very weak position, and they are compensating with an aggressive strategy. “CAT” is actually a sub-optimal trademark, and Caterpillar feels stuck with it.

Caterpillar has two facts against them:

1) Their truncated mark spells “cat”

2) Cats are exceptional popular, wide-spread, well-liked, and generally excellent subjects for brands

I don’t think Caterpillar ever wanted to be a cat company; they didn’t name their company after anything remotely feline. The irony is that Caterpillar probably doesn’t want to be defending “cat” as a trademark — after all, the company never really picked it. Caterpillar is unlucky to have a truncated mark that happens to spell “CAT,” and the company is concerned about how difficult that mark is to protect. After careful consideration, the company has decided that their best chance at protecting their truncated mark is to aggressively seek out trademarks that involve the word “CAT” and pursue actions against those trademark holders.

Caterpillar seems to be leaning into the hand they’ve been dealt: the company applied for two more trademark registrations last August that incorporate some honeycomb design into the mark (Serial numbers 88080972 and 88080934). I think we’ll know that Caterpillar has gone too far if the company pursues actions against other companies that make any use of honeycomb lattice designs in their logos, marks, such as Post Foods (for their Honeycomb cereal) or the American Beekeeping Federation.

 

Conclusion: Can’t Own Every “Cat”

The troubling fact for Caterpillar’s IP management is that their truncated mark happens to be an entirely different English word—an extremely common, extremely brand-able (because of the American fondness for cats) English word.

This accidentally expands the range of what Caterpillar has to consider when thinking about IP protection. It turns out that Americans like cats, and associating with something positive is a classic brand-building technique. So a lot of companies are prone to incorporating felines into their branding. This shouldn’t have anything to do with a company named after a butterfly larva, but trademarks are more about language than they are about zoology.

There are 2459 results for live marks in the USPTO Trademark Database with the word “CAT.” Caterpillar can’t deny IP ownership of every “cat.” But Caterpillar can’t idly sit by and let their trademark fade into oblivion because cats got a popularity boost from social media.

The central battle in IP is defining the boundaries of ownership (this is what it has in common with other types of property law). Caterpillar surely understands that no single company can own every instance or usage of the word “CAT.” But Caterpillar just as surely understands its risks: that a mark like “CAT” is extremely difficult to protect, and is likely to become a weak mark without constant vigilance.

There are strategic reasons for defending IP aggressively. But somewhere, there is a line between an aggressive defense and an offensive offense. Although Caterpillar’s strategy is understandable, there has to be a limit to a trademark portfolio. If Caterpillar hasn’t crossed that line with its cancellation action against Cat & Cloud, it surely must be getting very close.

 

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I have to include the caveat that there may be more to this particular case than is apparent. Research on open litigation is challenging. Seemingly insignificant or unimportant details can completely alter the course of a legal analysis. As always, nothing in this post constitutes legal advice and is for educational purposes only.

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Fun Fact: Caterpillar owns the second oldest “Cat” mark in the TESS database.

Second oldest CAT mark: 0564272, issued Sept 1952

Oldest Mark: TOMCAT:  0552420, issued Dec 1951.

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Bonus Background Trademark Knowledge: Two Types of Proceedings

What is an Opposition?

An opposition proceeding is when one party applies for a trademark, the USPTO says, “If anyone doesn’t think we should approve this trademark, speak now or … well, file a cancellation proceeding later.” An opposition is another party speaking up just before a trademark is granted.

Trademark owners sometimes file oppositions that sound egregious. But filing an opposition is sometimes just a way of announcing that you care about your trademark; in some of the more outlandish cases, the opposing party doesn’t really expect the USPTO to deny the application—the opposing party is just establishing a record. Other times, the opposing party really does think that there is a legitimate concern with the applicant’s trademark. The proceeding between Caterpillar, Inc. and PetraCat was an opposition proceeding (and as a result, PetaCat was not granted a registration for their trademark).

 

What is a Cancellation?

After the USPTO has approved an application and given a certificate of registration to a trademark holder, sometimes another party realizes that there is some reason that the trademark registration should be cancelled. A cancellation is different from an opposition in the fact that the defendant has already received a trademark registration. This gives a little bit more of a presumption of legitimacy to the defendant than the applicant has in an opposition proceeding. The proceeding between Caterpillar and Cat & Cloud is a cancellation proceeding.

 

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What Slay the Spire can Teach About Digital Media Access Decisions

When I heard that iTunes was scheduled for destruction, I was baffled and alarmed. I have since learned that the service is being split and re-branded, in a sort of platform-mitosis. But I had several conversations in which my interlocutors were not persuaded of the merits of media ownership over streaming media. Having collected my thoughts, and faced with Google’s Stadia announcement as well as even the phantasmal threat of an iTunes closure, I hope to make a case here that media ownership reduces wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable elements of media consumption.

Slaying The Spire, With Just a Little Luck (Or a Lot of It)

Slay the Spire is a rare case in which combining a lot of ideas into a game doesn’t make the game feel chaotic and confusing. The game consists of progressing through the levels of an eponymous spire, each level consists of some encounter or event—very, very often, a combat event. Combat in this game is a resource-management card game: using a limited pool of “energy,” cards are played that either deal damage or prevent damage from being taken. Each card costs a different amount of energy, so strategic choices have to be made to optimize offense and defense. At the end of a combat, the player is presented with three choices for a new card to add to the deck. The same deck is carried through the spire, so each completed combat presents an opportunity for new cards for future encounters.

Slay the Spire gets its replay value from the unpredictable factors that permeate the game. There is randomness within the combat encounter, as a player’s options are defined by the cards that are drawn from the deck on any given turn. Then there is further randomization in the events themselves (what enemies you fight, if any, on any particular level of the Spire). Slay the Spire adds randomness in the building of the player’s deck: there are no guarantees that you will even have the option to add a certain card to your deck in a particular run of 50 levels in a Spire. (I once spent an entire run through a Spire trying to assemble a deck centered around one specific card that would greatly amplify my defensive capabilities—I never even saw that card, and inexplicably still got to the final level.) And I haven’t even discussed the role of Relics in the game, which can provide small bonuses or fundamentally alter game mechanics. All of these unpredictable, randomly-generated chances and choices give the game replay value and make it interesting, fun, and challenging. Putting choices out of a player’s control can be an element of a great game, but it’s not a part of a great day.

 

Unpredictable Elements

There are a lot of components involved in the everyday digital tasks that fill (and sometimes sustain) our lives. The device has to work properly, it has to connect to a network, the network has to function, and we also rely on the server that hosts the data we want. Anything from dropping a cell phone to a power outage to an unplugged cable somewhere in a distant city can cause the entire process to fail. It is really amazing and awe-inspiring that the entire system works as well as it does. Of course, sometimes, something goes wrong.

For purposes of today’s discussion, I think it’s helpful to divide the possible problems into two categories: those in the user’s control, and those outside of the user’s control. So, whether I charge my cell phone, whether I spill water on my computer, whether I use a program correctly—those are, practically speaking, in the domain of the user. However, the city’s electrical power grid is not something a user can single-handedly maintain or repair. Similarly, the user cannot control conditions at a distant server farm, or control the telecommunications network that links the user to those servers.

This, it seems, is where I diverge from so much of my demographic cohort. I don’t want my access to media to rely on these two additional components (telecommunications and data-holding servers). Maybe I would feel differently if I had better experiences, but I have repeatedly been unable to play games or watch movies because at least one of these components has failed. I have encountered this setback for over a decade- in some cases, I have experienced it daily, over the course of months. In contrast, when I think back to those halcyon days in which I owned my media, the only obstacle was a scratched DVD or a VHS tape that was just too-well-loved (we all have a childhood story of the tape that we watched so many times that the playback became warped and distorted).

Conclusion

The unpredictable nature of the available choices in Slay the Spire keeps an otherwise repetitive game novel and engaging. By forcing the player to consider various probabilities and possibilities, the game creates challenge and the kind of frustration that invites a player to learn, try again, and do better next time. I cannot understand the kind of person who willingly invites this kind of challenge and frustration into the process of trying to listen to music or watch a movie. Conversely, if a player had control over any of these random elements in Slay the Spire, the game would be easier. For both Slay the Spire and media access, generally, the same rule applies: the more control one has over the variables, the less challenging the experience.

There are other issues implicated in this debate that I didn’t touch on: the data privacy questions that come with streaming and DRM protections, the reasonable efforts of artists and publishers to protect their copyrights and profit from their works, the legal status of digital goods, etc. Those issues deserve consideration (which is why I have written about them before and will do so again), but I wanted to keep my focus narrow for the sake of clarity. My perspective on this question can be distilled to one personal point: I do not feel that there is evidence to support the claim that US telecommunications networks are more reliable than I am. I simply trust myself more than I trust those corporations, their services, and their infrastructure. Likewise, I trust myself more than I trust the media companies that provide the platforms and media. This is true on a day-to-day basis (for telecom), and it is true for long-term planning (media providers make no promises that they will last longer than my interest in the media they provide).

I can trust electricity providers—they have proven themselves. Power outages certainly do occur, but their frequency, cause, and duration are within acceptable parameters.* Maybe it comes down to what inconveniences, unknowns, and probabilities we are willing to accept. I can live in a world where my electricity is out for maybe 30 minutes per year. I’m not excited to choose a world in which I can access my own leisure at the leisure of so many other people.

 

 

 

 

*The fact that power failures necessarily cause network failures would be a meaningful riposte if my point were strictly confined to unadjusted uptime comparisons.

How Pirates Change Games (It’s Usually Not An Improvement)

Sea Of Thieves: It’s Not Called “Sea of Cool Guys” – Mike Krahulik

Sea Of Thieves is a game where people who want to be pirates can be pirates. Some players really, really  get into the role. Every online game community has experienced some trolling and griefing; there are always players who invent their own game, though it’s always the same game, in which the objective is to make other players unhappy. The developers of Sea of Thieves specifically designed space for that kind of player—unlike other games which seek to curtail negative behavior and ban players who ruin a good time for others. In a game about pirates, wanton aggression has a place.

 

When You’re a Professional Pirate…

It took me a while to understand how copyright infringement (and counterfeiting) came to be called by the same term that was previously reserved for attacking a ship, killing the crew, and stealing their stuff. The two crimes don’t really look similar: copying a digital file rarely involves a cutlass or a flintlock pistol, taking barrels of rum or chests of gold, and typically doesn’t involve boats at all (except when moving a lot of counterfeit goods internationally, I guess).

I think the term makes more sense from the perspective of the owners of the rights. Pirates of the 15th-19th centuries were hard to find, hard to predict, and hard to pursue. Sometimes their attacks wouldn’t be noticed for months, as it was hard to get good cell phone reception in the mid-Atlantic in the 1600’s. So, when music, movies, books, and games started getting copied and distributed, and rights owners struggled to identify who was doing it, where they were, or what they might do next, as they completely disrupted the industry’s ability to sell and distribute their wares, I imagine pirates came to mind.

 

Countermeasures

Media industries reacted to piracy differently, as best fit the particular medium. The music industry moved away from physical goods and into the digital marketplace. The iTunes Music Store was, in many ways, like the P2P networks that had threatened the industry, except that Apple was the only one seeding and they charged for each song.

The video game industry took a different approach. After a short-lived effort to encrypt physical copies, the industry moved to a digital distribution system. This was easy enough, and platforms like Steam and the Play Station Store were already moving the industry in this direction. The next move, however, was for the internet to start shaping the way games were played: online gaming became increasingly popular, and developers and publishers realized that it was easier to keep track digital copies if devices had to connect to the company’s servers. It was a natural fit: the games already involved internet connection, so it wasn’t much more work to have the serves check to see if players had authentic copies of the games. Because the game required player to be always online, this method became known as Always-On DRM. When it worked well, it was something that honest players would never notice or think about. But it didn’t always work so well.

Rebellion

The new system worked well for some games. Other games… well, suffered. Sometimes, the online connection requirement was obviously completely artificial and frustrated players because the setup made no sense. This exacerbated problems in cases of poor execution: when a server couldn’t connect, it was even more frustrating when the server wasn’t necessary for the game experience. Even today, not everyone has a consistent, stable, high-speed internet connection (especially in the US). Many players just wanted a simple, single-player experience, and Always-On DRM interfered with that. The method created an environment that only allowed players to play when the company was able to facilitate it; if the server was down, or the connection was slow, the game was unplayable. This upset people who paid for a leisure product and then found out they could not use it at their leisure. By increasing friction and fuelling resentment against the game industry, some game companies suffered as they tried to implement Always-On DRM. The artificial inclusion of Always-On DRM to the reboot of the incredibly popular and successful video game SimCity is credited with its failure (notably, the execution of the Always-On DRM was sub-par, as the server was frequently down or buggy).

 

Pirate By Design

Sea of Thieves found success as a game by embracing a certain attitude that the rest of the industry had been fighting for decades. The developers made a space for people who want to undermine the work of others. So far, it’s been an interesting experiment that I can only predict will culminate in the coagulation of that particular kind of trolling, griefing player. I see it as a kind of prison in which the inmates believe they are at a theme park. Maybe the game will eventually give us some kind of data about trolls who revel in ruining the joy of others. Maybe it will teach us something about pirates.

There is already a lesson about piracy for video games. In the early 90s, piracy was built into the business model of some companies. They called it “shareware,” and the idea was that people would copy and distribute a portion of a game. The developer hoped that this would serve as a sort of advertising, and people who enjoyed the shareware portion of the game would then purchase the full game. In 1993-4, idSoftware proved that this model was feasible with one of the most popular games of the 90s: Doom was distributed widely as a shareware product and the company made enough profit for the head programmer and the lead level designer to each purchase a high-end sports car. This year, idSoftware released Rage 2; unsurprisingly, the new parent company, ZeniMax, did not opt for a shareware distribution model. The video game industry has changed over the last 30 years. It takes a special combination of product, customer, and ecosystem for it to be a smart choice to give away a third of your product for free—but it’s not an impossible dream.

Today, piracy remains a problem for the video game industry, but new legal challenges (some with more legitimate basis than others) have proven more urgent: legislation of loot boxes, esports contracts, prosumer sponsorship deals and disclosures, copyright infringement within the game, and copyright infringement for streaming and video uploads.

Maybe that’s the best reason to keep the term “piracy” for copyright infringement that involves copying the entire work and distributing for consumption as a counterfeit or inauthentic product: there are so many ways copyright can be involved in a video game in the current digital ecosystem, have different terms for the different infringements is nice.

Meme Collective: A Strange Hope

Steve Jobs always wanted Apple to be a large, powerful force. Mark Zuckerberg wanted a way for students at Harvard to know who was single and a way to make plans for parties. Some tech companies, products, and platforms, were made with an eye to global scale—but some weren’t. Because the internet has always been a collection of people forming communities, it has always had hallmarks of organic growth—specifically, it has always had surprising, unplanned successes. In many ways, the internet itself is something of a surprise, unplanned success: it went from a science project, to a nerd hobby, to a general luxury, to a utility. Unplanned success can bring a lot of problems. As the internet got popular, copyright law suddenly took on entirely new scope, meaning, context, and purpose. But just like some tech products and companies struggled under the weight of their own popularity, copyright law has struggled to bear the weight placed on it by an internet of creative, collaborative users.

Meme Union

Instagram is a cultural surprise (except perhaps to Jean Baudrillard) in and of itself, but it’s still surprising to read that the creators of memes are banding together to form a union. The underlying reasoning is understandable: these creators: 1) Make a living by creating content that is uploaded to Instagram, 2) Bring in significant advertising revenue to Instagram as a result of this content, 3) Have no kind of guarantee or assurances regarding Instagram’s behavior. It’s an incredibly interesting scenario that has happened with professional content creators: the overall structure of employment has happened without any agreement or discussion. I interpret the effort to unionize as an effort to formalize an informal, de facto employment.

There is one other very unusual wrinkle regarding this informal, organic employment: a lot of it is probably illegal, and almost no one takes that seriously.

 

Are Memes Legal?

In a TED Talk, Lawerence Lessig pointed out that remix culture that is so prevalent online is a violation of copyright law. Among other problems, he feared that the generation primarily involved with the creation of this media would develop a callous indifference towards the law as that generation became accustomed to ignoring laws that failed to keep up with technology and culture.

Memes function on the idea that a copyrighted work is a blank canvas. The problem behind remixes and mashups is that these new works use existing works of others. I don’t see the distinction between a meme and a remix, except maybe for two things: 1) minimal use, and 2) original additions. However, there are problems with both of these potential justifications for memes. The uses rarely qualify as minimal, and copyright law is unclear (at best) about what kind of original additions would be enough to allow the new work to be declared non-infringing.

Of course, it is possible to make a meme without infringing copyright: using photos from the public domain, or photos to which the creator also owns the copyright, for example.

 

Will Unions Like This Modernize Copyright Law?

This strange moment is exciting because it’s a moment of cultural evolution. The unionizing effort may or may not work out in this case, but that’s almost irrelevant to the larger picture. This is a significant step toward an internet that blends user-generated-content and ecommerce (arguably, two of the biggest buzzwords and applications for the internet from the ‘90s and ‘00s). It’s also exciting to see how quickly new media is commanding economic force. The concept of watching professionals play video games is still surprising and baffling to millions of people—while streamers and pros sign sponsorship deals with Fortune 500 companies.

The most exciting prospect is the effect that the increased economic attention could have on changing copyright laws. Copyright policy has really struggled to find a powerful force that advocates for user-generated-content accommodations. Indeed, the fiercest advocates for copyright policy have been major copyright holders (movie and music studios). Non-profit organizations have made noble efforts to present counter-arguments to the interests of the major copyright holders, but there has not been a concerted effort of content creators on new media to affect policy change. An Instagram Meme Union is a surprising starting point, but it might be a good starting point.

EU Directive On Copyright in the Digital Single Market: Three Not-So-Scary Possibilities

When evaluating the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, there are three general categories of outcomes: Little/no impact, Moderate-but-endurable Impact, Apocalyptic/Catastrophic. It turns out that there are pros and cons to each.

NOTE: Here I consider the DCDSM in the context of arts and entertainment, with a particular focus on user-generated content production. I note at the outset that I suspect there is a very different analysis for the impact of this directive on news media and news dissemination.

 

1. Little-To-No Impact

EU Implications

As a directive, this passing of the DCDSM does not accomplish much. The directive is only an edict that member states must pass their own laws that accomplish the general purposes of the directive. The first question the DCDSM poses, then, is how different nations will approach this directive.  Some nations might do very little, passing only milquetoast legislation and then neglecting to enforce it. Other nations may openly and pointedly refuse to comply with the directive, daring the EU to take punitive measures  against the non-compliant nation. Each country will have to decide how to balance the force of the directive (which is, itself, of debatable strength) with the risks of losing access to some major technology platforms.

Each nation is surely aware that there is a question of whether companies would rather cease operations in countries whose requirements are too onerous. Twitter or YouTube may find that the cost of meeting a nation’s copyright requirements outweighs the benefits to the company of continued operations in that nation. There is a bold example of this behavior in recent memory: When China demanded too much from Google with regard to censorship, access to user’s email and other data, Google simply decided to discontinue operations with the largest consumer base in the world. If Germany asked Twitter to pay for each link that users disseminate through their service, Twitter might prefer to avoid that tax by no longer offering Twitter to Germany.

 

US Implications

Another of the looming questions that this directive poses is whether there will be implications for non-EU jurisdictions. When the EU passed a law that increased user data protections, many companies restructured their data privacy systems across all regions. Some companies might consider a similar approach when faced with the DCDSM—it is sometimes easier to structure a business model to meet the highest requirements placed on the business. Many companies have struggled to navigate copyright claims (and data privacy, consumer protection, and advertising laws) in the wild frontier of user-generated content and digital media. They may see new, stringent laws as an opportunity to approach these problems with new tactics—though companies will have to consider whether their tactics will obliterate their business.

2. Moderate-But-Endurable Impact

In some ways, this is the worst for users and the best for large stakeholders.  This outcome keeps YouTube and Twitter afloat, imposes inconvenience and malcontent on users, but the obstacles are just minor enough to navigate. Maybe YouTube and Twitter charge a small subscription fee to cover their increased costs (not unlike Netflix or Hulu). Maybe the large, familiar platforms lose some of their functionality, but not so much functionality that the platform feels entirely transformed. Under this scenario, most of the things that most users do still mostly work, and therefore the overall satisfaction of the user base is only slightly lessened.

 

 

3. Apocalyptic, Catastrophic Annihilation of Social Media As We Know It

Histrionic

People who have the most to lose in the worst-case scenarios are beyond deeply concerned. The reaction of content creators on YouTube seems to be that this is among the worst things to ever happen for their business model. These people consistently cite existing problems with YouTube’s ContentID system and the copyright strike system as the basis for their concern (and moderating content on a social media platform is no easy task), and predict that this law will exacerbate those existing problems. Their reasoning is that YouTube has already demonstrated the challenges involved in trying to regulate copyright claims on YouTube: algorithms get things factually wrong, there is no presumption of de minimis use, journalism and parody uses are rarely recognized, etc.

The Way Forward

The worst case scenario that content creators fear is the death of the major platforms: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook (and subsidiaries like Instagram), will all lose economic viability or become so difficult to use in meaningful ways that users will abandon them, and the internet itself will die as a direct result. I see plenty of alternatives to the death of the internet (that’s something I expect the telecommunications industry to achieve before anyone else), even granting a severe impact to the operations and function of major (and minor) platforms.

A key fact about the internet is that users will always find ways to navigate the new space. The internet is a battleground for a particular kind of warfare: a fight in which new strategies are always being discovered. New platforms rise to replace old ones (no matter what the reason for the death of the last one was).  New methods and systems are born out of the effort to get around whatever obstruction frustrated the users.

Users will find ways to continue their current behavior, working around the impositions of the new laws. Not allowed to Tweet a link? Users will develop a new system for pointing people to information (humans have been creating systems for this purpose for millennia). Not allowed to stream a video game with a song it? Sing over it. Users are creative: successful content creation in the new environment makes creativity an imperative. The large copyright holders may one day (if not this time around) live to regret promulgating too draconian of an edict of creativity.

 

3A. The Backfire Scenario, Or, The Poetic Justice of Getting What You Ask For

“Success is a menace. It fools smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates, as depicted in Pirates of Silicon Valley

One likely response to the DCDSM is that users will create more of their own content. If using existing content becomes prohibitively difficult, more users will create what they cannot afford. This will have a detrimental effect on the stakeholders who expect to gain the most from the new laws: the rights holders of existing popular works. These stakeholders have felt for decades that the internet was undermining their profits by allowing people to access movies and music without paying for it. As users create original content instead of incorporating these existing works, the works of the larger establishments will enjoy less dissemination and recognition by the public. The audience for these works will shrink as fewer people are exposed to their works. Large corporate stakeholders will need to invest more in advertising campaigns to acquaint the public with their products; they will try to replace what content creators were doing (for free and more effectively) for them.

For most of the 20th century, large corporate rights holders had every reason to think that they were indispensable—that they were the only way that people could access arts and entertainment. The Napster case demonstrated that the internet had the power to undermine their channels of distribution. User-generated content is the current argument that the content itself can also be produced outside of the control of these large stakeholders. If the DCDSM sparks an apocalypse of the current generation of UGC platforms, the phoenix that rises from those ashes is surely the end of the 20th century entertainment business model. In this scenario, users truly leave the large rights holders behind.

 

Conclusion: Probably Not Really That Bad For Art and Entertainment

Everyone will have to wait and see what form the Directive takes as it influences national laws. I think this is the kind of law that the internet is ready to work around. If it has devastating effects on existing platforms and services, I am quite sure that new platforms will emerge that promote entirely original content, unshackled from existing copyrighted content. The emergence of new solutions is the story of the internet.

K/DA and Holographic Performance: Computer Code or Dance Choreography? 

Copyright applies when a creative expression is fixed in a tangible medium. This has presented questions and problems for certain kinds of creative works, of which my two favorite examples are fireworks and dance. Like a beautiful explosion of color in the night sky, the dancer does not leave a fixed expression in a tangible medium after leaving the dance floor. However, it is possible to fix the dancer’s choreography in a tangible medium—and maybe there is a new way to do that.

“So Keep Your Eyes On Me Now/ The Show Is About To Start”

At the 2018 League of Legends World Finals, some 90 million spectators (including some 23,000 live at Munhak Stadium) were treated to a musical performance that featured life-sized augmented reality projections of fictional pop-star characters dancing alongside physically present, corporeal, non-fictional dancers. This is not the first time a hologram has performed at a live concert: Tupac graced Cochella with his digital and photonic presence in 2012, despite the inconvenience of his death in 1996.

My idle, speculative quandary in the case of K/DA Pop/Stars is whether a dance routine performed by holograms can be registered as choreography for the copyright office. For a lot of reasons, it really doesn’t matter in this case—Riot isn’t going to litigate around this issue (though people may change their tune about copyright), and to the extent that they do need a copyright registration for this, it’s unlikely to matter whether it’s classified as choreography or as a computer program.

Still, it’s an interesting issue to explore because the finer details of technology can sometimes inform how a judge will rule (as in the case of embedded Tweets).  Can someone register copyright for a computer program that directs the lights and projection machines to present the images of the hologram in such a sequence and manner as to create the illusion of a dancing individual? It would be interesting to see how the Copyright Office or courts would parse a computer program for a dancing hologram.

 

Drawing Distinctions

Law can take controversial twists around new technology because an adjudicator struggles with the technology involved. Typically, this means someone has either embraced the extreme of refusing to recognize a substantive difference in a new technology, or someone has gone to the other extreme of imagining a difference with a new technology that isn’t supported by reason.

When faced with new technology, the easiest move is to look back at other technology and see if an analogy can be made. The obvious subject for comparison is traditional animation. In broad concepts, there are plenty of similarities between creating a hologram dancer and drawing and animating a dancer. The tools are clearly different- so how similar is a keyboard to a pencil? The uses, purpose, function, and the end results of the tools are similar enough—but there are also very clear distinctions. Copyright law has made an effort to be medium-neutral: it doesn’t matter if a novel is written on paper, caved into rock, or saved in a PDF.

It might be that augmented reality and holograms are simply a new flavor of animation, and, from a copyright perspective, there’s simply nothing new to see here. However, the combinations of new technologies are more likely to produce something substantively new. Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita is fond of the point that a hurricane is just a lot of breeze—yet everyone treats the two as substantively different. I take it that he means that a sufficient accumulation of non-substantive changes, at some point, creates a substantively new category. This is the core distinction that adjudicators have to make: is a new technology substantively different, or just a different medium for something that is already established?

 

“So Can You Handle What We’re All About?”

Is a computer program of choreography is substantially different from a recording of a dance? The choreography is the script for the dance. A recording of a dance is how a particular dancer happened to perform the dance. Copyright distinguishes between the sheet music and a recording of the performance. In the case of a computer program that simultaneously generates a dancer and dictates the movements of that dancer, can the performance be separated from the script? The choreography only exists as it is embodied in the performance itself.

This raises a further question as to whether effects of the performance are also part of the choreography: for example, the moment in which Kai’Sa fires a firework-like lighting effect during the performance. If it is part of the code, and the code is the choreography, then this effect is part of the choreography—although it seems like something that should be a production direction, not part of the dance itself.

As unlikely as it sounds, some adjudicators might look to the question of whether the computer code recognizes a difference between pixels and limbs. That is, the question might turn on whether humans can recognize the code as dance instructions. An adjudicator might reason that the computer cannot dance, and so the execution of the code is not the performance of a dance– thus, someone who can dance must be able to interpret the instructions so as to perform the dance.

If we want to make this more interesting, we can imagine this technology combined with an AI that creates new dances. Here, the AI dancer is also the author (unless the author is the rights holder of the program). We can further ramp up the question by putting this AI choreography in a robotic humanoid body and turning it loose on the dance floor, where it transcribes its own choreography as it creates it.

 

Fortnite Is Dead, And So Are The Copyright Claims (Hyperbole or Prognostication?)

If Riot (I assume Riot holds the rights for the K/DA performance) can register the work as a dance, they will probably need to register the entire dance. The Copyright Office has rejected the attempts to register the brief dances (micro-choreography?) of several plaintiffs who are bringing suit against Epic Games. As I already discussed, these plaintiffs may still have claims under some use of personal likeness laws, but it looks like their copyright claims are unlikely to get off the ground after the Copyright Office denied registration.

 

The Bigger Picture: “Wish ya luck”

Ultimately, this is exciting because this is what it looks like when technology, culture, and law meet. This is exactly what it is: Epic Games monetizes dance moves that are popular and known and publicized, and before the lawsuits can even be dismissed, Fortnite has already lost its player base to Anthem and Apex (odd twists of identity theft included for added 21st century flavor). These fringe, unimportant, idle explorations form the basis for decisions that affect the bottom line of corporations and the constraints on artistic productions. For the adjudicators of copyright law, this only gets harder: As computers become increasingly sophisticated and increasingly common tools for the production of works of art, the Copyright Office will face increasingly difficult questions.

Dancing Carefully Through An Analysis in Intellectual Property Law

Epic Games Dances Into Players’ Wallets

The hit game of 2018 (released by Epic Games in 2017) Fortnite is getting multiple lawsuits from different performers regarding the use of dance moves available for use within the game. The game allows players to command their avatars to dance, and players may select from a range of available “dance emote” options – available for individual purchase by players (generating over billion dollars for Epic). The plaintiffs allege that some of these options are depictions of the dance moves of celebrities and entertainers.

This case hits most of the usual notes of hard cases in intellectual property: where is the line between homage and plagiarism? How much use of a thing violates fair use? What can be protected by intellectual property law? This case is also an example of how easy it is to think incorrectly about an issue in intellectual property. If we focus too much on understanding why Epic might use the dances of famous people, we can fool ourselves into thinking this is a trademark case. When we approach this case by first assessing what subject matter is at issue, we recognize this as a copyright case. The fact that a dance can be understood, culturally, as a kind of signature is what can lead us into an incorrect analysis of this case as one of trademark and not copyright.

 

It Might Be Your Signature Move, But You Don’t Sign Checks With It And You Don’t Get a Trademark Registration For It

Movements or motions can act as a kind of signature for people—especially those in the public view who want to be remembered. Carol Burnett ended her show with a tug on her ear.  Johnny Carson imitated a golf swing after delivering punch lines in his nightly monologue—Conan O’Brien made a joke of trying to incorporate overly elaborate “signature gestures” into his show during his debut monologue. YouTube performer PewDiePie has made a point to regularly associate himself with a “BroFist” gesture. Politicians often have an associated hand gesture—like Bill Clinton’s half-fist-with-thumb-on-top. A person’s idiosyncrasies make it easy to identify, imitate, and remember them—and imitating a celebrity’s signature movement can invoke an audience’s positive attitudes towards that celebrity. Invoking the goodwill associated with a person for the benefit of someone else sounds strikingly similar to a case of trademark infringement.

So, can dance moves be protected by trademark? If we think of dance as a signature, then it sounds like a kind of source indicator– people associate the dance with an entertainer. But it’s not really used to indicate the origin of a good or service:  NBC doesn’t use Turk’s dance to inform viewers that they’re watching the show Scrubs. And this is why the trademark analysis is the wrong way to think about this case: although the reasoning in the infringement looks like the reasoning involved in trademark infringement (to take advantage of the fame of a celebrity), the subject matter (a dance) is not normally in the domain of trademark law.

It might not be impossible to get a trademark registration for a dance, but it would be difficult. Maybe a dance submitted to the trademark office as part of widely-run marketing campaign could meet a trademark standard. Or a product or service is actually provided with – or because of—the dance might qualify for a trademark registration. I’m not sure if either would earn a trademark registration (it would depend lots of other facts in the trademark application), but it would take a very high level of creativity and ingenuity to secure a trademark registration for a dance.

 

So It’s a Copyright Question?

When we start with the question of subject matter (and not by wondering why someone might copy a dance), we recognize that a question about the depiction of a dance is most likely a question under copyright law. Copyright law recognizes dance as a medium of artistic expression. It makes sense that, if plays and scripts can be protected by copyright, (and copyright protects musical compositions and performances), then copyright can protect the work of dancers and choreographers in ballets, musicals, etc.

Copyright attorney Shanti Sadtler Conway explained, “The U.S. Copyright Office views individual steps the same way it would individual colors or words.” This is interesting for a few reasons, one of which is that colors and words are better defined and understood than the concept of “an individual dance step.” In this case, there are certainly at least several “steps” depicted in each of Fortnite’s dance emotes- the dances appear to last at least 10 seconds. Is that a paragraph’s worth of content, when converted from choreography to prose? A paragraph can be enough to be punishable infringement.

 

The Seminal Question of the Internet: “Is it FAIR USE?”

The two misconceptions I see most often about fair use are 1) “it’s fair use if I don’t make money off it,” and 2) “it’s fair use if I only use a little bit.” Those two things are often among the things that a judge might consider when evaluating whether a use is protected under 17 USC 107, but using even a small percentage of a work might still infringe a copyright.  So, Epic might try to claim fair use, but I’m skeptical about how the court might receive that argument. It might work, but a for-profit, non-transformative, non-parody use of a work does not point to fair use – and, indeed, it likely concedes the point that Epic used someone else’s work.

 

Is This Appropriation of Personal Likeness?

It’s worth reflecting on how easy it was to think of this case as a trademark issue. The reason the case looked like a trademark question was that the alleged infringement appears linked to the fame and celebrity of certain individuals. There is another area of law that can address this kind of claim: right of publicity. These state laws touch on ideas in both copyright and trademark law, and apply them specifically to the depiction or representation of a person.

In 1988, Ginger Rogers lost her case against a filmmaker who made a movie referencing her in the title (though the film was not about her, some general elements evoked her career as the Hollywood dance partner of Fred Astaire). She brought claims under trademark law as well as claims regarding her right of publicity. Sadly for her, the court held that “minimally relevant use of a celebrity’s name in the title of an artistic work” was not a violation of Rogers’ rights. Although it wasn’t a Supreme Court decision, the case became the landmark for the use of celebrity references in artistic works that are not about that celebrity. (Maybe this loss is why Rogers did not even bother suing Madonna for the mention of Ginger Rogers’ name in the 1990 song “Vogue.”)

Legal questions of the use of personal likeness in video games are getting more attention in recent years, especially for athletes in sports games. (This, in turn, has caused questions of the copyrights of the tattoos of those athletes.)  It’s not clear whether a depiction of a dance associated with a performer infringes a right of publicity. If the court can accept the legal concept of a “signature dance move”, then the claim seems to meet the test given in the Rogers case. It would be very interesting to see if this litigation expands the claims that can be brought under right of publicity laws.

 

Conclusion: Trademark, Copyright, and Right of Publicity Have Similarities, but They’re Still Legally Distinct

Thinking about the use of someone else’s fame makes it easy to think of a trademark issue, but in this case, a fundamental analysis precludes trademark and points to copyright. However, remembering the role of fame leads to thinking about possible claims under right of publicity laws.  In legal analysis, it’s important to address the most fundamental questions before speculating on motive or intent.

Trademark law has a lot of purposes and roles. One function of trademark law is to protect the goodwill, fame, and celebrity that a person or company worked to build up, and prevent other people from taking advantage of that work without permission. However, not every case of using someone else’s fame is a trademark case.

 

 

Endnote- Patents

Can dance moves be protected by patent? This is a non-starter. 35 USC 101 outlines eligibility for patentable subject matter as “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.” Obviously, choreography isn’t considered an invention or discovery that fits those categories.  Debates about patentability are fierce and complicated, especially as humanity explores new territory in medicine  and computer science.  I wonder whether dance will be considered for patent when it is programmed into a hologram’s performance (the choreography itself will likely be exempt from any patent) or when it is created by an AI system that is patented (I think this will be a more complex argument over whether this is a process for creating choreography).