Making Offensive Trademarks Legal, If Not Fashionable (Incau v. Brunetti)

Some of the most challenging cases in law (and in political philosophy) are questions about the limits of freedom. It is generally accepted by all but the most extreme anarchists that some level or order and constraint on behavior must be maintained in a society. Opinions differ greatly as to methods, reasons, and applications more specific than this.

For Americans, finding the limits on the freedom of speech found in the first amendment is a perennial challenge.

 

I) The Case

Brunetti makes a clothing line called “Fuct.” Like many people who make something, he wanted to register a trademark for his brand. However, the 1946 law that governs trademarks in the US (the Lanham Act) prohibits “immoral… or scandalous” trademarks. The US Patent and Trademark Office rejected Brunetti’s application for a trademark because they found that the mark “Fuct” is “scandalous or immoral.” Brutnetti brought the USPTO to court (the court case is named for the director of the USPTO, Andrei Incau). The Supreme Court found that Brunetti cannot be denied his trademark registration on the grounds given by the USPTO, and declared that the section of the Lanham Act that prohibits immoral or scandalous trademarks is unconstitutional as a violation of the first amendment.

This case follows a previous ruling on disparaging trademarks. In 2017, the Supreme Court decided that an Asian-American music group called “The Slants” could not be denied their trademark on the grounds of the offensive nature of the name. This ruling found that another part of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional: the prohibition of trademarks which are disparaging.

Unsurprisingly, it has been difficult to apply a law that relies on such an amorphous and malleable concept as “offensive.” Since the Lanham Act was passed over 60 years ago, the USPTO has accepted and rejected trademarks that could be considered immoral or scandalous.

 

II) Potential Problems and A Public Safety Possibility

With disparaging and offensive trademarks no longer prohibited by the Lanham Act, what constraints remain?

One of the few things that consistently beats out freedom of speech in American law is public safety. The iconic example from a case in 1919 is that the act of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater (where there is no actual fire) and causing a panic in which people could be injured or die is not an act protected by the first amendment.

One of the foreseeable problems with opening up trademarks to offensive and scandalous terms is the potential for trademarks which seek to harm people (for example, promote violence). There are already restrictions on trademarks that prevent some confusion with official government symbols. I think there is a line of reasoning that such existing restrictions serve the purpose of promoting public safety, and therefore rejecting trademarks that threaten public safety may be permitted.

Trademarks which are grossly offensive but do not threaten public safety may be more difficult to oppose or cancel. The 2017 Matal v Tam case ended the litigation around the cancellation of the trademark for the Washington, D.C. football team. Such is the difficult and challenging nature of creating and applying law: it is always a balancing act of various competing interests, and it is very difficult to create winners without creating losers.

 

III) You Can’t Be Refused Your Trademark, But I Can Refuse To Say It

I think there’s an Easter egg in this case: a hidden, subtle lesson that I’m not sure I fully grasp. As far as I can tell, for the entire proceeding of this case, none of the justices actually used the word that “Fuct” imitates. They did not say it during oral arguments and it does not appear anywhere in 44 pages comprising five different opinions.

That word, and the use of it, is fundamental to this case. The Court handed down an opinion that required the government to not prohibit the use of a word that the Court thoroughly (almost pointedly) declined to use. This suggests interesting things about language, culture, and law. Maybe this lack of usage underscores a point about the chasm between what is legal and what choices people can make. Maybe it illustrates a kind of objection-by-performance, demonstrating that people can act and speak in ways that differ from mere legal requirement.

Although this case changes the law to permit offensive language in trademarks, the cultural sensibilities and sentiments that once prohibited such speech remain. Tension between culture and law is rarely sustainable.

 

 

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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.

————————————————–

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.

***

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.

 

Elderwood Academy’s Dicey Trademark Application

Elderwood Academy (technically, Three Frog LLC) has filed an application for a trademark on one of its products. It’s an interesting trademark because it is for the design and shape of the product, rather than a word, mark, or image associated with a good or service. It is the kind of trademark that IP attorneys describe as “trade dress,” which has a special niche place in the world of intellectual property.

A fundamental role of trademarks is to prevent consumer confusion. I actually have two of these products. The first time I saw this product, I believed the manufacturer was Wyrmwood. I was confused about this for over a year—until I tried to buy one from  Wyrmwood’s booth at PAXUnplugged. This is the kind of anecdote that suggests a need for trademark protection.

How Competitors Can Respond to a Trademark Application

When a trademark is filed, it is reviewed by a Trademark Examiner. If there are no problems, the examiner publishes it for opposition from the public. If there are no filings in opposition, the trademark is granted. Wyrmwood is one company that might have an interest in this trademark application; if Wyrmwood wants to eventually make hexagonal dice vaults, this trademark would present a problem for them. Wyrmwood will likely have an internal meeting to decide how to respond to this, and select one of three actions: 1) do nothing and forfeit entry into the hexagonal dice container market, 2) file an opposition with the USPTO explaining why the trademark should not be granted to Elderwood Academy, 3) contact Elderwood Academy and negotiate a co-existence agreement.

The “do nothing” option always has the appeal of being the easiest. However, it is much more difficult to undo that choice later. Even if Wyrmwood has never before thought about making hexagonal dice vaults, and even if they currently have no plans or designs for future production of them, it is good business to imagine the possibility of one day getting in to that market.

The option to file a notice of opposition with the USPTO has some challenges. First, the application is pretty strong. I think there are some weaknesses that could reasonably be highlighted in an opposition filing, but I doubt the trademark would be denied on the basis of the problems I can see. Regardless of the result of the opposition filing, the act of fling it may create tension between Wyrmwood and Elderwood. Preserving positive business relations is important, even between competitors. (In my view, especially between competitors!)

The third option is to work together and negotiate a co-existence agreement. These kinds of agreements are contracts made by parties that have competing or potentially competing interests when a trademark is filed. Sometimes the agreement includes an acknowledgment that a trademark does not infringe or create a likelihood of confusion. Sometimes the agreement will effectively relinquish the use of a trademark in a certain area, or will include a promise to not attempt to enter a certain market or create a certain kind of product.

In this case, Wyrmwood might offer to promise to never make hexagonal dice vaults in exchange for Elderwood’s promise to never make dice towers or deck boxes. There are many promises and exchanges that the two companies might offer in order to avoid any opposition or conflict over the trademark. The two companies (or their attorneys) might create the agreement collaboratively, or they might enlist the services of a mediator to help them explore value-creating opportunities.

Cooperating Competitors

The products made by both Wyrmwood and Elderwood are used by tabletop game players- especially D&D players. The game D&D works best when everyone at the table cooperates, even when characters have conflicting goals/drives/motives. The Dungeon Master likes it when players and characters can work through their differences to cooperate. Otherwise, the DM has to make a ruling and that usually makes at least one player unhappy. In the same way, the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (the authority that adjudicates trademark disputes) likes it when competitors can reach their own agreements and get along without needed a ruling.

Will Wyrmwood file an opposition? It depends a little on their business philosophy, their future plans, and their relationship with Elderwood. It’s certainly best if they work together.

 

 

Popularizing Formats For Sitting At a Table and Having a Spirited Discussion

Mediation has a surprising amount in common with the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons.

1) Most people know very little about either one.

2) People who have heard of it often think it’s a waste of time, and may deride those who support it.

3) Neither are promoted in mainstream culture.

4) The formats bear some similar appearance: Several people sit around a table. One person seems to be “in charge,” but really, that person is just helping the other people at the table actually make meaningful decisions by providing structure and clarity for the process.

5) Neither one has a final, decisive ending that declares a winner. Rather, the purpose for both activities is to have a mutually satisfying experience and outcome; everyone wants to walk away from the table feeling like it was a worthwhile investment of 3 hours (… or 5 hours… or 18 hours…).

6) The enemy that must be defeated is abstract in both cases. For D&D, it’s the… well, the Dungeons and Dragons that must be overcome (it’s extremely clear naming). In mediation, it’s the conflict itself that is the enemy– not the other person.

More people than ever are playing D&D- and even filling theaters to watch professionals play it. Can mediation find the same increased acceptance in our culture?

 

The Wizardry of Brand Management

D&D surged in popularity in the last few years. The owner of the game and the brand, Wizards of the Coast (WotC), has rebuilt and redesigned the rules and format several times since taking over the trademark in 1993. When launching the 5th edition of the game in 2014, WotC leveraged social media to demonstrate how the game worked. The 5th edition was easier to understand, easier to play, and easier to watch than any previous edition. These changes made it more inviting for new players and also made it much more of a spectator event, which fit with the use of streaming services like Twitch and YouTube. Enthusiasts started to publish their own gaming sessions online, effectively turning their gaming product into a TV show—sort of a strange inverse of how most children’s cartoons worked in the 80s and 90s to sell toys. Like so many video games that now comprise the esports corpus, D&D became a game that collected an avid fan base and consistent spectators to fill streams and theaters. Podcasts, streams, and live performances have introduced thousands of new players to the game, as well as rekindled the imaginations of those who have not rolled a twenty-sided die in decades.

Despite their broad similarities, mediation has not exactly kept pace with D&D’s surge in popularity. Despite the overwhelming difference in cost, time, end (arguably) effectiveness, litigation remains the gold standard for dispute resolution in matters of legal consequence in the US.

Courtroom drama television shows, (and “procedurals,” generally) have done well in the US. A regular program centered on mediation could easily do as well as any long-running legal procedural show. Wizards of the Coast brought D&D out of derision and obscurity (even dismissing alleged satanic affiliations) by making it comprehensible and accessible. They used every possible tool to present an alien an esoteric game structure in a way that was engaging and entertaining, while at the same time gently informing viewers who simply watched the process.

 

Two Obstacles To Mediation’s Popularity

There is a snag in the economics of promoting mediation:  Wizards of the Coast is financially incentivized to promote their D&D product. A lot of wealthy people and companies are not necessarily incentivized to promote mediation as a primary form of dispute resolution. Trials can be incredibly expensive, and their complexity and cost often favors the side with more money to hire more experienced attorneys. Those with advantages of any kind, in any setting, are typically unwilling to give up those advantages. If the US legal system creates any advantage for those with power or wealth, it is easy to see why power and wealth would not be used to promote an alternative method of dispute resolution.

The other primary obstacle is the lack of cohesive ownership over mediation. D&D is a gaming product owned by a single company, and so decisions surrounding its brand management are made by a single entity. Mediation is a broad structure of dispute resolution, not owned by any particular body. Indeed, it is not the kind of thing that is subject to trademark or patent protection. There are trade groups and individual specialists who would like to see mediation increase in popularity, but there is no single entity with resources and authority over mediation. It is not comparable to the relationship of a company with its product. The lack of a trademark or ownership makes branding extremely difficult. Wizards of the Coast is able to manage D&D carefully, shutting down counterfeit products and distinguishing itself in the gaming market. Mediation is not the kind of thing that is subject to trademark protection.

 

The Cultural Boost for Competitive over the Cooperative

If popularity is about brand management, mediation seems condemned to obscurity because that brand can’t be effectively managed.

But how did litigation get popular without a trademark and a livestream? Perhaps the adversarial attitudes in litigation fit naturally with a competitive culture. Litigation so often becomes about beating the other side, rather than beating the conflict itself. Mediation is most successful when each side sees the obstacle as the conflict itself, and everyone works together to defeat that problem—not to defeat each other.

Despite the epithet of “rules lawyer” to describe many D&D players, a society that played more cooperative tabletop games would probably be less litigious. Taking a few hours to learn to work with someone who has different personal objectives from your own is an unusual activity in our culture, but learning to listen and cooperate might have value in an increasingly interconnected and networked society.

“Extra! Extra! Trademarks Show Consumers Sources!” What Telecommunications Can Learn From IP Law To Combat “Fake News”

Formal news broadcasts play a role in a lot of games that focus on story: Deus Ex: Human Revolution centers itself around the news broadcaster, and the game culminates in the decision of which news story to broadcast. Starcraft II’s Terran campaign allows the player to explore the storyline by watching news broadcasts. Borderlands 2 allows players to follow news broadcasts from different sources as the main storyline progresses. In each case, there is always a gap between the news story that is presented and the information the player has. Whether the news is explicitly propaganda, merely biased, or simply missing information, each game underscores the fallibility of the news as a primary source for information.

Subjectivity, bias, and context can change the interpretation of a news story. Words themselves can also be subject to changes in context and intent. The term “Fake News” gained fame when used by Trump to accuse CNN of, essentially, being left-of-center. However, it has more recently been used to refer to Russian hackers spreading propaganda and disinformation on Facebook and other social media under the guise of non-biased, traditional-style newsmedia.

Trademarks: How We Know What is From Whom

The goal of trademarks is to reduce consumer confusion by establishing clear connection between goods/services and the manufacturer/provider. This consumer knowledge is considered essential to a healthy marketplace and – in many cases—to consumer safety. Applying the same fundamental concepts of trademark law to telecommunications law might have a positive effect on combating certain forms of so-called “Fake News.” By requiring each news source to register digital certificates with social media platforms, consumers could be more confident in the source of their information. The information may still carry the biases of the institution, editor, or author of the news piece, but the consumer would be aware of that possibility from the initial contact with the article or video. Just as trademarks do not enhance the quality of a good or service, digital certification would not ensure high-quality, un-biased news containing only perfect information. Similarly, even under robust trademark law, counterfeiting (and other violations) do occur. There would be a risk of various hacking attacks that would allow “Fake News” to be published under the name of a news source that did not actually produce it. However, such a hack can be addressed and corrected in ways that are not possible in a news marketplace without identifying information for news releases.

Trademark law may even be brought to bear directly on the Fake News problem. News outlets often develop their own styles and designs that remain consistent over time, eventually becoming associated in the minds of consumers with the outlet. This could be interpreted as trade dress, and a case could be made that this is a type of intellectual property subject to legal protection. Enforcement of this would likely be very difficult against foreign, anonymous violations, but creating a culture of more regimented, clearly defined news outlets would be beneficial in helping consumers spot outliers that don’t fit the known news providers—and treat such new providers with appropriate scrutiny and supplemental research.

 

 

Are Trademarks a Data Security Alternative to Sad, Weak, Outdated Copyrights?

If you’ve been on the web for a while, you’ve seen an advertisement that looks like the user interface of the website you’re viewing- or maybe an ad that has a false close button, and clicking it just navigates you to the advertised page. These are blatant ways to trick consumers into taking actions they don’t want to take. Sometimes, these inadvertent actions can create security vulnerabilities such as malware.

Despite all of the focus on applying copyright law to the internet, I wonder if there are hints of trademark and trade dress protections that could become relevant to data privacy issues. I will cautiously, even timidly, explore a few of those possibilities (which several others have explored over the last few years).

I. Trademarks: When it Comes to Data Privacy, Accept No Imitations.

Trademarks have a simple purpose: to let consumers know the origin of a good or service. Trademarks are often a word, phrase, or image (logo), but can also be a sound or smell (on rare occasion, it can get a bit more abstract ).

A major category of trademark infringement is counterfeiting. That $20 “ROLEX” watch from the guy in the alley? That’s a counterfeit (sorry), and one of the legal issues involved in the sale of that watch is the use of a trademark without the legal right to use it. There haven’t been a lot of counterfeit websites on the internet, especially since SSL and other authentication processes got better. However, there are plenty of imitation apps and games. One of the reasons such apps and games fail and are quickly removed from distribution is that they infringe trademarks.

However, some countries do not have the same standards regarding trademark (or copyright) enforcement. Consider an imitation League of Legends game, lampooned here. At the end of the video, the player says “Oh, and it’s also a virus,” as his security software reports malware after playing the game. This humorously underscores the point that many infringing* products pose a security and privacy threat. Using trademark law to limit the proliferation of readily accessible, easily confused programs is a valuable practice in maintaining computer security for consumers.

II. Trade Dress: No One Really “Owns” That Icon… But You Know Who Owns That Icon.

Trade dress is a sort of sub-category of trademarks. It’s rarely talked about or used, but it can be thought of as the totality of design and aesthetics that go into a product, place, or service that make consumers identify the source. Color palette, patterns, shapes, and other factors go into the evaluation of trade dress. Crucially (and perhaps fatally), elements of a trade dress must be considered “non-functional.”  For example, the major case in trade dress concerned a Tex-Mex restaurant that used the same colors and layout of another Tex-Mex restaurant.

Here’s the controversial idea I think deserves consideration: Could misleading, camouflaged web content be considered an infringement of trade dress? (Think of the kinds of ads that make you believe you’re not clicking on an ad, but rather some piece of actual content on the site- especially regarding navigation buttons that match the navigation icons of the site.)

The reason I look to trade dress for a solution is that icons and interfaces, even stylized ones, are not subject to trademark, copyright, or patent protections. Furthermore, websites are increasingly treated as the digital equivalent of stores and offices of businesses- so much so that designs and layouts can come to be the trade dress of that business. Thus, there is a gap in the legal protection of user interfaces, and a need to cover that gap.

(Treating websites as subject to trade dress might have the added benefit of discouraging UX and UI designers from fiddling with the location and arrangement of navigation tools every other month just to justify their paycheck. And that’s the kind of change this world really needs.)

Conclusion: Trademark Protection is Already Working, Trade Dress is Still Vague and Untested

Trademark law is already quietly making the digital ecosystem a little bit safer by eschewing threatening knock-off games and apps. I think there’s a case to be made for applying trade dress to websites and UIs, but it would be a novel application and courts may be hesitant to apply the law so creatively.

 

* “300 Heroes” Infringes both copyrights and trademarks, but it’s the funniest example.

 

Watching Over Copyrights and Brands, Part II

You can protect a brand in a lot of ways. You can wave the law around like a sword, or hide behind it like a shield. Or you can not worry about using the law to your advantage and just make a product that others can’t top. One of the most fun things about law school was learning about all of the ways around the law – not breaking or circumventing it, but bridging over the gaps and cracks. Gaps and cracks happen most when the law hasn’t kept up with culture or technology, which is where I think the law is most exciting and interesting.

One of the most genius aspects of the overwhelming media hype-package of Overwatch is the way it manages concerns for copyright and trademark infringement. Blizzard achieved a level of branding and promotion that reduces their concerns for infringement. Overwatch is inimitable. That doesn’t make it invulnerable, but it might be the next best thing.

I. “Junk” from “Rats” Can’t Hurt the Bastion of the Marketplace

Even before I ever visited New York City, I knew that people sold cheap, counterfeit Rolexes on the streets. Having this explained to me as a child is also how I heard about Rolex, incidentally – and learned that it was different from Rolo. I always thought it was interesting that everyone knew about this black market for counterfeit goods, but no one seemed extremely worried. I think one reason for the lack of concern is that Rolex knows they won’t go out of business because of cheap knock-offs.

The best games, from the biggest studios­, have less to worry about when their IP is infringed or “heavily borrowed.” Dominating the games market is less about legal force than it is about marketing and loyalty. For one thing, Activision can’t claim copyright over the concept of a military-shooter and force other studios to not make games that compete with Call of Duty. So Activision makes Call of Duty a brand, because brands command loyalty. A given Call of Duty game may be worse in every respect to a competitor’s game, but fans will still choose the inferior product because of its franchise. (This is one of two reasons anyone rooted for the Cubs from 1945- 2015.) Blizzard created something powerful: a genuinely superior product that commands tremendous brand loyalty.

II. Just Palette-Swap For A New Game! Sounds Pharah- don’t you McRee?

Of course, just because no one can succeed in really ripping off Overwatch doesn’t mean people won’t try. League of Legends had this experience, also. Generally, game knockoffs like these are about as much of a concern as e-mails from dispossessed millionaire Nigerian princes. It’s a reprehensible practice that creates clutter and will accidentally trick some people, but they aren’t going to displace the original.

Companies can compete with Overwatch, but they can’t replace it. The entire experience is too complete and interconnected. No parasitic effort can trick a gamer into thinking they have the real deal, no one can deliver a superior version of the same experience, and no one pull more brand loyalty in online gaming.

III. Leaving your Trace[r] Mei Show that You’ve been a [Road]Hog, and You’ll Get No Mercy

Although Blizzard won’t feel the financial impact of the feeble efforts of clones, there are things that can still undermine the game. For example, a company could make an add-on that allows players to cheat at the game. Of course, a company called Bossland did exactly that. Rather than simply ban the players who use this add-on (per violations of EULA and ToS agreements), Blizzard has gone after the makers of the program – who are super proud of what they do.

I am a little bit surprised that they cite copyright infringement in their claim. This is interesting because it seems well outside the scope of traditional copyright law, but copyright law has been slowly evolving in the last decade. I think the technical details of how Bossland’s program interacts with Blizzard’s game could be essential to determining if applying copyright law is appropriate. After the recent ruling in Google v. Oracle, courts are more likely to find infringement just from making two programs talk. (The fair use defense that saved Google is not going to help Bossland.) In this case, it seems extremely likely that Bossland had to access and take (or manipulate) some of Blizzard’s code, which may be enough for infringement. But the ways that 3rd parties can interact with programs is still an interesting question for copyright law to resolve.

Regardless of the copyright claim, I think the other claims made by Blizzard are plenty strong enough to win, so I don’t think a court will end up going into detail about it.