Rights, Licensing and Endorsements

William Shakespeare’s character Juliet famously asked Romeo “What’s in a name?” The question still rings true today, and the answer may be, well, a lot.

The Power of a Name

The value in Grammy-award winning singer Rihanna’s name, her surname specifically, is at the center of a legal dispute between her and her father.

Robyn Rihanna Fenty, known worldwide as Rihanna, sued her father, Ronald Fenty (“Mr. Fenty”) alleging he used their surname, Fenty, to mislead consumers into thinking she was associated with his business, Fenty Entertainment LLC. Rihanna filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Mr. Fenty and his business partner, Moses Joktan Perkins, claiming a violation her right of publicity, false designation of origin, and false light, among other claims. She is seeking damages, an injunction to stop her father from using her “FENTY” trademark to sell or promote any goods or services, and a declaratory judgment.

Known worldwide as a pop music star and beauty icon, Rihanna is also a prosperous businesswoman.  According to the complaint, she has been using her surname professionally and in connection with her brand and business ventures since at least August 2012. Through her company, Roraj Trade, LLC, she owns U.S. trademark registrations for a series of marks containing her surname, including “FENTY BEAUTY”, “FENTY BEAUTY BY RIHANNA”, and “FENTY GLOW”. She also owns trademark registrations in multiple foreign jurisdictions for the marks: “FENTY BEAUTY”, “FENTY BY RIHANNA”, FENTY”, and “FENTY FRAGRANCE”. Rihanna’s trademarks cover a number of products, including makeup, fragrances, and sneakers. “FENTY BEAUTY” has become one of Rihanna’s most popular brands, standing out at the forefront of popular cosmetics retailer Sephora, and being named one of Time Magazine’s 2017 “Inventions of the Year.

In 2017, Mr. Fenty opened Fenty Entertainment LLC, described on its website as an entertainment company “cultivating new talent and developing TV and media platforms.” His company is registered as an LLC in California and is also described as a production company developing “motion pictures, live concerts, and record producing.” In sum, Mr. Fenty’s business brands itself as offering services in the entertainment industry – the same industry in which his daughter has become of the biggest stars. With Rihanna’s visible brand campaigns, such as “Fenty Beauty”, “Fenty x Savage”, “Fenty x Puma” – and now her father’s Fenty Entertainment LLC…use of the Fenty name seems to leave room for confusion.

Supporters of Mr. Fenty’s business might respond: “Well, it’s his last name, too.” But what rights does a party have to their own last name?

Can A Surname Be Trademarked?

It depends. U.S. federal trademark law doesn’t allow an applicant to register a surname that is “primarily merely a surname” on the Principal Register.  15 U.S.C. §1052(e)(4).  This means there is no protection on the Principal Register for a surname that generally has no meaning outside of being someone’s last name.

On the other hand, if a surname has secondary meaning, also known as “acquired distinctiveness,” it’s eligible for protection under federal trademark law. A trademark registration applicant must prove that consumers associate the surname with a brand rather than simply thinking of it as someone’s last name.  A quick example is fast-food chain McDonald’s. While “McDonald” is a surname, McDonald’s Corporation owns the registered mark “McDONALD’s” in connection with restaurant services because the word “McDonald’s” has acquired a secondary meaning as a fast food restaurant with the golden arches.

Similarly, in Rihanna’s complaint, she argues that the “FENTY” mark, is “inextricably intertwined” with her professional persona, reputation, and businesses.  She argued that her “FENTY” mark has secondary meaning because relevant consumers understand the association with Rihanna when they see the mark “FENTY”.

It’s important to note that Rihanna owns the “FENTY” trademark in connection with beauty, makeup, and fashion products.  However, her complaint does not raise a trademark infringement claim, perhaps because Mr. Fenty filed a trademark application to register “FENTY” in connection with resort hotel services, not beauty products. His trademark application is still under review by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which issued an initial refusal to register “FENTY”, alleging that it is primarily merely a surname when viewed in connection with hotel resort services (and citing 677 public records of individuals with the surname Fenty on the LEXISNEXIS® surname database).

Rihanna’s complaint brought claims of false designation of origin, suing her father for allegedly using their last name (her trademark) in his business to mislead consumers to think she is associated with his company.  Rihanna argues that the strong recognition of her “FENTY” trademark combined with her father’s choice to name his business Fenty Entertainment, and Rihanna’s overall influence in the entertainment industry confuses consumers into thinking Fenty Entertainment is associated with Rihanna, Roraj, and her Fenty Beauty product line.

Agency Law

The complaint also raises principles of agency law – it alleges that Mr. Fenty misrepresented the company as having authority to submit offers and enter into contracts on behalf of Rihanna. One notable allegation is that Fenty Entertainment engaged in conduct to book Rihanna for a series of Latin American concerts.

The complaint further alleges that until just about four months ago – October 2018, a press release on Fenty Entertainment’s website read “Ronald Fenty, father of superstar recording artist Rihanna, today announced the launch of Fenty Entertainment with his daughter Robyn ‘Rihanna’ Fenty”, implying an allegedly false affiliation with Rihanna.  According to the complaint, Fenty’s social media accounts stated that the company was affiliated with Rihanna until as recently as November 2018.

The complaint claims that while Mr. Fenty is Rihanna’s father, “he does not, and has never had, authority to act on Rihanna’s behalf.”

Even though Rihanna is a superstar entertainer, her “FENTY” trademarks largely protect her services in beauty, fashion, and fragrances. What does this mean for her father’s business as it relates to the entertainment industry?

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California will decide.

Image from 123RF Limited

The California appellate court ruling which dismissed actress Olivia de Havilland’s suit against FX’s Feud will remain in place after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected de Havilland’s petition for review last week.

The now 102-year-old actress best known for roles in Gone With the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland alleged that FX’s depiction of her in the Emmy-award-winning docudrama Feud infringed her right of publicity and portrayed her in a false light.  Feud aired on FX in March of 2017 and was an eight-part miniseries that illustrated the intense rivalry between world famous actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  Olivia de Havilland, a close friend of Davis, was played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and her character appears for a total of 17 minutes across the entire season.

Specifically, de Havilland’s right of publicity claims hinged on her contention that she did not give FX permission to use her name, identity, or image.  Further, de Havilland complained that the depiction of her giving a fake interview on the red carpet, accusing Frank Sinatra of drinking all the alcohol in a green room for a production, and calling her sister, Joan Fontaine a “bitch” in an interview (de Havilland had actually called her a “dragon lady”) portrayed her in a false light.

FX claimed de Havilland’s suit amounted to nothing more than an ill-fated attempt to silence protected speech and filed an anti-SLAPP motion which was denied.[1]  The trial court reasoned that de Havilland’s right of publicity claims held merit based on declarations by purported entertainment industry experts claiming it is customary in the industry to obtain an appearance release from all individuals depicted in a work.  Moreover, the trial court held that FX’s portrayal of de Havilland was not “transformative” because its producers were attempting to portray her “as real as possible.”  The trial court also found that a jury could find that de Havilland was portrayed in a false light as a “gossip who uses vulgar terms about other individuals.”

FX’s appeal ultimately set the stage for a decision that vindicates the First Amendment and benefits all filmmakers and writers.  In her opinion for the Court, Associate Justice of the Second District Court of Appeal Anne H. Egerton recognized that books, films, plays, and television shows often portray real people and that these people, regardless of their fame, do not “own history.”  Accordingly, de Havilland “does… [not] have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of [her].”

The Court held that the First Amendment “safeguards the storytellers and artists who take the raw materials of life – including the stories of real individuals, ordinary or extraordinary – and transforms them into art, be it articles, books, movies, or plays.”  Further, the fact that some producers may obtain appearance releases or “life story rights” as a means of obtaining greater access to information about subjects and avoiding litigation does not mean that the First Amendment requires such agreements and, indeed, the Court held that such agreements are not required.  The Court noted that it might be a different story if de Havilland’s image was being used in a way that implied she sponsored or endorsed the work, but the Court reasoned that merely depicting de Havilland does not automatically indicate an endorsement.  Moreover, the Court found that her depiction was “transformative” because Feud told a complex story, the use of de Havilland’s identity was merely one of the raw materials from which the work was synthesized, and the work’s marketability and economic value derived from the creativity and skill of the creators and actors in Feud – not the depiction of de Havilland, which was only for 17 minutes of the 392-minute series.

With respect to de Havilland’s false light claim, the Court found it unpersuasive.  Specifically, the Court held that merely portraying de Havilland giving a fictitious interview would hardly subject her to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy.”  To the contrary, the Court found that de Havilland was portrayed as a “wise, witty, sometimes playful woman” and Zeta-Jones’ portrayal of her was “overwhelmingly positive.”  Further, the series’ portrayal of de Havilland stating that Sinatra drank all the alcohol in a dressing room was not actionable because “Sinatra’s fondness for alcohol was well known” and a depiction of de Havilland saying this would not subject her to ridicule.  Finally, the Court found the fictitious “bitch” comment about de Havilland’s sister was not materially different from de Havilland’s actual reference to her sister as a “dragon lady.”

Of course, since de Havilland is a public figure, she had to demonstrate that Feud’s creators acted with actual malice when they made false statements about her.  De Havilland argued that actual malice was established by the producers’ concession that the red carpet interview, quip about Sinatra, and “bitch” comment never happened but, rather, were added for dramatic effect.  The Court was not convinced, holding that “fiction is by definition untrue.”  Thus, “[p]ublishing a fictitious work about a real person cannot mean the author, by virtue of writing fiction, has acted with actual malice.”  Rather, to prevail, a plaintiff must show that the defendant intended to convey a “defamatory impression.”  Here, the Court found that the producers intended to portray de Havilland as “a wise, respectful friend and counselor to Bette Davis, and a Hollywood icon with a unique perspective on the past,” and such a depiction was not grounds for a false light claim.

Although firmly defeated, de Havilland’s attorneys told the Los Angeles Daily Journal that “Miss de Havilland hopes she will live to see the day when justice is done.”  For filmmakers, producers, and writers, that day has already come.

[1] A “SLAPP” is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.  Typically such an action is not filed because it holds merit, but rather to silence speech.  In response, California and numerous other states have passed “anti-SLAPP” statutes, which allows a defendant to file a special early motion to strike a SLAPP action and typically features the following procedural/substantive advantages: (1) a stay on discovery; (2) an expedited hearing of the anti-SLAPP motion; (3) an immediate appeal if the motion is denied; and (4) an award of attorneys’ fees to the party prevailing on the motion.

It’ll be hard to dance out of this one.

An actor, an influencer, and a rapper have filed lawsuits against Epic Games Inc., the creator and publisher of “Fortnite”, over the use of certain dances in the game, alleging copyright infringement.  Fortnite is a survival shooter, battle royale, “king of the hill”, or, last person standing video game.  The game has become extremely popular, with Epic reporting to media outlets that it now has up to 200 million players.  Players can create their own worlds and battle arenas — and at the center of controversy, players can choose what dance their characters perform when they win.

Alfonso Ribeiro, best known for his role as the beloved character of Carlton on the 1990s hit television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, is suing Epic over the use of a dance he made popular on the show. The dance, usually referred to as “The Carlton Dance”, can be seen in the game as a function when a player wins. Fortnite calls the dance “Fresh” and game players can purchase various dances known as “emotes” for their characters, including another called “Rambunctious” which mirrors a dance performed by Will Smith’s character on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. These are just a few examples of multiple in-game purchases and downloadable content (DLC) that have generated wild amounts of money in revenue for Epic — despite the fact that the game itself is free to download and play.  According to Variety, analysts estimate Fortnite is generating $100 million per month.

In Ribeiro’s lawsuit, he asked the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to stop Epic from using, showing, or selling the Carlton dance. Ribeiro is in the process of registering the dance under federal copyright law, a requirement to bring a copyright infringement claim.  Ribeiro argues he created the dance and made it famous over the years during appearances, including most recently during his participation on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” TV show. Ribeiro further claims the dance is “inextricably linked” to his identity, celebrity, and likeness.  On the other hand, the creators of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air might argue that they maintain ownership of rights to the dance, as many talent agreements contain results and proceeds provisions that give all rights in content produced on a show to the producers, not the talent.  Thus, the battle ensues over when exactly the dance was created and by whom.

But can a dance be protected by copyright?  The U.S. Copyright Act protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression”.  17 U.S.C. § 102.  Visual works under the umbrella of protection include choreographic works and choreographed stage performances.  Ribeiro argues his dance constitutes a choreographed work subject to copyright protection.  And he isn’t the only celebrity to file suit against Epic.

Influencer Russell Horning, known among millennials as “Backpack Kid”, also filed suit against Epic seeking to stop the use of his popular dance, “The Floss”, in Fortnite.  Horning is also suing Take-Two Interactive, the maker of the popular video game franchise “NBA 2K” for the use of the dance without his permission. Horning quickly became a social media influencer after his performance with Katy Perry on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017.  He boasts 2.3 million Instagram followers and often posts comical videos of himself dancing.  He also recently released an EP, making “The Floss” an even more important asset of his entertainment career.

Similarly, rapper 2 Milly filed a copyright infringement lawsuit over the use of his dance, the “Milly Rock”, in Fortnite.  Fortnite presents the dance for purchase as the “Swipe It” emote.  The Milly Rock dance gained popularity due to 2 Milly’s 2015 song of the same name.  His argument parallels those of Ribeiro and Horning, claiming ownership and authorship of the dance, seeking damages for its use without permissions.  2 Milly is seeking punitive and exemplary damages.

All three lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  Along with copyright claims, the lawsuits include claims for violation of the right of publicity and unfair competition.  Horning also brought claims of trademark infringement and false designation of origin.  It seems like the combination of these claims could create a Fort-nightmare for Epic Games.

These lawsuits come during a rise of celebrity disputes with video game content creators for the use of their name and likeness without their permission.  We’ve covered similar topics here.

One copyright lawsuit says the answer is “no.”

In a case against Take Two Interactive, the maker of the popular “NBA 2K” video game franchise, Solid Oak Sketches LLC argues LeBron James can license his likeness, but cannot license images of his tattoos due to copyright law.

Solid Oak claims it owns the images of multiple NBA players’ tattoos including LeBron James, Eric Bledsoe, and retired player Kenyon Martin, in a September 22, 2018 filing that opposed Take Two’s motion for summary judgment.

“NBA 2K” games allows users to play simulated NBA basketball games – complete with life-like images of prominent NBA players. With a spot-on depiction and digital recreation of an athlete like LeBron James comes the depiction of his tattoos – many of which are recognizable to fans and gamers alike – and the ensuing battle over who has ownership and control to license those images.

Solid Oak purchased the copyright to the images of the tattoos from actual tattoo artists. Now the company claims it – alone – owns the copyright to the tattoos. Take Two claims that James gave it permission (through the NBA as a third party) to use his name, image, and likeness in the video game. So, who’s right? Both parties could be.

Dual rights in a photo

Solid Oak’s recent motion argues there are two rights that content creators (and licensors) must be aware of when dealing with a photograph. First, the right of publicity, including name, image, likeness and how those can be used commercially. This means James can give a company permission to use his name, photos of him, and generally the way he looks in an advertisement, for example, to generate revenue. Solid Oak does not assert any interest in this right.

What it does assert is that it owns the copyrighted image of James’s tattoos. A copyright contains a bundle of rights, including the rights of reproduction and public display. According to Solid Oak, both of these rights were infringed by depiction of the tattoos in NBA 2K.

As a result, Solid Oak concedes that LeBron James owns his right of publicity, but argues that he has no power over use of the copyrighted image of tattoos on his body.

LeBron James: ‘I Have the Right to Have My Tattoos Visible When People or Companies Depict What I Look Like”

LeBron James feels differently. On Friday August 24, 2018, he testified on behalf of Take Two, stating “my understanding is that the tattoos are a part of my body and my likeness, and I have the right to have my tattoos visible when people or companies depict what I look like.”

Take Two argues that a ruling in Solid Oak’s favor would allow it to “shake down” any TV show or program. This could include NBA games broadcast on TV where well-known players and their tattoos are visible.

Does this mean LeBron James and other players could potentially violate copyright laws by simply appearing onscreen?

Potential Slippery Slope

Take Two argues there is a risk of chilled speech and content suppression if the court rules NBA players must secure licenses from tattoo artists prior to making appearances.

Earlier this year, Take Two argued its use of the tattoo images is protected under the fair use doctrine and the de minimis standard. However, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain declined to dismiss the case in March on either ground, seeking more facts.

One solution could be for NBA players to obtain signed releases from tattoo artists for each appearance depicting the player. The downside is this would significantly increase the burden on players to clear each appearance with a third party, leaving them with little control. This could be the result if the court rules in Solid Oak’s favor.

LeBron James was the highest rated player in “NBA 2K17,” indicating his prominence in the game, particularly with game users. But how big is the market for tattoo licensing? One expert for Take Two claims there is no tattoo licensing market for video games. Now, it is up to the court to weigh expert testimony on user preferences in “NBA 2K” and just how prominently the tattoos are displayed.

The court’s decision will likely affect the longstanding relationship between tattoo artists and NBA players – for better or for worse.


Mikella Persons Wickham is a law clerk in the firm’s Entertainment Department, based in its Los Angeles office.

Among copyright lawyers, Stairway to Heaven may become known not just for its abstract lyrics and acclaimed guitar solo, but also for the legal rulings that upended a jury verdict of non-infringement and sent the parties back to the District Court for a second trial to determine if the classic Led Zeppelin song was the product of copyright infringement.

50664380 - slippery stairs warning signIn brief, the copyright owner of the song Taurus, which was written in 1966 and first performed several years before Stairway to Heaven’s 1971 release, claimed that the latter infringed the former.  Although the jury found that the band, including Stairway to Heaven songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, had access to Taurus, they found that the two songs were not substantially similar and, thus, that there was no infringement.  The Ninth Circuit’s ruling last week addressed multiple issues, three of which are discussed below.

First, the Ninth Circuit faulted the District Court for its failure to include a jury instruction that the selection and arrangement of non-protectable musical elements is protectable under the Copyright Act.  The opinion notes that this was not a new legal principle and that, more than ten years earlier, the Ninth Circuit had affirmed a substantial similarity finding based on the manner in which five unprotected musical elements appeared in the works at issue in that case.  The Ninth Circuit rejected Defendants’ argument that the omission of the instruction was “harmless error.”  The Court found that the exclusion “severely undermined” Plaintiff’s ability to establish extrinsic substantial similarity, noting that Plaintiff’s expert had testified that the required similarity existed because Taurus and Stairway to Heaven incorporated the same five musical elements (some protected, some in the public domain) in the same way.

Second, the Ninth Circuit ruled that reversal was required because two of the District Court’s jury instructions regarding “originality” imposed too heavy a burden on the Plaintiff.  These instructions stated that (i) elements in the public domain or included in prior works, and (ii) common musical elements like chromatic scales, arpeggios and sequences are not protected by copyright.  The Court faulted these instructions for failing to clarify that the selection and arrangement of non-protected musical elements could qualify for copyright protection and ruled that they “undermined” Plaintiff’s expert’s testimony that Taurus and Stairway to Heaven were substantially similar because of the manner in which they combined unprotected elements.

Third, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court that the Plaintiff could only rely on the copy of Taurus’s music composition deposited with the U.S. Copyright Office, and not also on sound recordings to prove substantial similarity because Taurus was released prior to Congress’s extension of copyright protection to sound recordings in 1972.  Significantly, however, the Ninth Circuit ruled that sound recordings of Taurus should have been played for the jury during cross-examination of Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page to prove access.  Even though it accepted that the recordings were relevant to access, the District Court excluded them under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 because of its concern that jurors would consider them for purposes of substantial similarity.  The Ninth Circuit deemed this an abuse of discretion that deprived jurors of the opportunity to evaluate Page’s demeanor both when he was questioned about access and when he listened to the recordings.  The Ninth Circuit found the risk of juror confusion “relatively slight” and that it could be “further reduced” by admonishing the jury to only consider the recordings for purposes of access and not also substantial similarity.

In March of this year, the Second Circuit reversed a decision by the District Court and held that the video clipping service operated by TVEyes infringed Fox News’ copyrights. We covered this decision in a previous blog. TVEyes is now attempting to bring the matter to the Supreme Court in what could be a landmark case regarding fair use of newsworthy content.U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC

TVEyes is a subscription service that records essentially all television broadcasts on 1,400 channels on a 24/7 basis. By using the closed-captioned content that accompanies the recorded broadcasts, it is able to create a text-searchable database of the contents of each clip. TVEyes subscribers can run searches that return a list of video clips containing the searched terms. Each clip runs for 10 minutes and begins shortly before the search term appears in the clip. In addition to news organizations such as the New York Times, its subscribers include the U.S. Department of Defense, the United Nations, professional sports leagues and even the White House.

Five years ago, Fox News brought suit against TVEyes for copyright infringement based on its “verbatim reproduction” of Fox’s broadcasts. TVEyes countered by asserting a fair use defense. The District Court agreed and dismissed Fox’s claims, but the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the case with instructions to enjoin TVEyes from making available to clients the ability to watch the 10-minute clips retrieved from TVEyes’ client search requests. (Fox did not object to TVEyes’ creation of a text-searchable database, only to its delivery of clips.) The court held that two elements of TVEyes’ use favored Fox. First, by making 10 minutes of content available, TVEyes delivered “virtually the entirety of the Fox programming that TVEyes viewers want to see and hear.” Second, and most important, TVEyes’ service was sufficiently competitive to potentially deprive Fox of revenues that it could have been receiving from its own program of searchable access to its broadcasts. The very success of TVEyes’ service was strong evidence of the existence of a market for searchable clips.

The Second Circuit contrasted this to Google’s actions – which were found to constitute fair use – in Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., 804 F.3d 202 (2d Cir. 2015) (“Google Books”). In that case, Google made unlicensed text-searchable copies of millions of books for which searches retrieved “snippets” of the books containing the search terms. Unlike TVEyes’ 10-minute video clips, these “snippets,” according to the Second Circuit, “abbreviated to ensure that it would be nearly impossible for a user to see a meaningful exposition of what the author originally intended to convey to readers.”

TVEyes is now seeking to argue its case to the Supreme Court. It argues that its case presents an opportunity to resolve a split between circuits over “a question of exceptional importance, including the proper balance under copyright law between the interests of a copyright holder and the First Amendment right to criticize and comment upon the copyright holder.” TVEyes also notes that the Court has not addressed fair use for over 20 years, since it articulated the doctrine of transformative use in the case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music.

Joshua Bornstein writes:

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DCPresident Trump’s recent nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill Justice Kennedy’s seat on the United States Supreme Court has caused some concern about his potential impact on the future of copyright law. This is because Judge Kavanaugh could be joining the ranks of Justices Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch who are all noted skeptics of the doctrine known as “Chevron deference.” How this may impact copyright law requires a brief review of history.

In 1803, the United States Supreme Court held in Marbury v. Madison that it is was the role of the judiciary “to say what the law is.” In other words, Congress writes the law and judges determine what the law means whenever the law, as written, is ambiguous. In 1984, however, the Supreme Court loosened that rule in Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council by holding that courts should defer to administrative agencies that interpret the statutes that grant them their authority when the intent of Congress is ambiguous and where the interpretation is reasonable or permissible. Put differently, sometimes, the executive branch gets “to say what the law is” and judges should defer to those agencies so long as their interpretation makes sense. The deference courts give to administrative agencies is known as “Chevron deference.” How the Supreme Court approaches “Chevron deference” could affect the ongoing battle between cable companies and Internet-based streaming services.

A recent line of copyright cases has involved the issue of whether companies that stream content over the Internet fall within the meaning of a “cable system” under copyright law. Section 111 of the 1976 Copyright Act defines a “cable system” as any “facility” that retransmits shows “by wires, cables…or other communication channels.” What “other communication channels” Congress intended to include within the definition of a “cable system,” however, is seemingly ambiguous. The issue, then, is who gets to decide “what the law is” in the face of this ambiguity.

If a company is considered a “cable system,” then it is afforded certain rights. Specifically, a cable system is eligible for a so-called “compulsory license” that allows it to retransmit “a performance or display of a work” that had originally been broadcasted by someone else without having to get the consent of the copyright holder. To do this, the cable system need only pay a statutory fee to the Copyright Office.

After the cable system pays the fee and complies with other regulations, it is protected from infringement liability. In addition, the royalty payments cable companies pay through compulsory licenses are much smaller than what they would have to pay if they were forced to negotiate with individual content owners to obtain licenses. Simply put, it’s good to be a “cable system.”

In 2014, the Supreme Court decided a case called American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, Inc. Aereo devised a novel means to deliver content over the Internet, which was to lease an individual antenna and DVR to each of its customers. In response to the inevitable infringement lawsuit by the copyright owners, Aereo argued that its retransmissions were not a “public performance” of the copyrighted content (which would constitute copyright infringement) but that it was merely an “equipment provider.”

The Supreme Court ruled that Aereo’s retransmissions were “performing” the broadcasters’ copyrighted material and it was, therefore, infringing. In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court noted Aereo’s “overwhelming likeness to cable companies.” This language – the “overwhelming likeness to cable companies” – opened up a new argument by likening streaming operations to cable companies.

Capitalizing on this, a company called FilmOn, which is an Internet-based television streaming service, sought a compulsory license from the Copyright Office, but was ultimately rejected. A lawsuit ensued and the case went before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. FilmOn argued that “wires, cables…and other communications channels” found in Section 111 should include Internet-based retransmission services. The Ninth Circuit, however, recognized the statutory ambiguity in Section 111 and turned its attention to the Copyright Office’s interpretation for guidance. The Ninth Circuit concluded as follows:

FilmOn and other Internet-based retransmission services are neither clearly eligible nor clearly ineligible for the compulsory license § 111 makes available to “cable systems.” The Copyright Office says they are not eligible. Because the Office’s views are persuasive, and because they are reasonable, we defer to them.

In other words, the Ninth Circuit deferred to the Copyright Office to reach its decision; “Chevron deference” was applied. It is worth noting that the issues raised by FilmOn have been litigated in other circuit courts as well, and could, one day, make its way before the Supreme Court. It is very possible, therefore, that the Supreme Court will not afford the Copyright Office the same type of deference that lower courts have given it, especially because Justices Roberts, Thomas and Gorsuch have been noted skeptics of the doctrine of “Chevron deference.” Adding Judge Kavanaugh to the bench could mean that the Supreme Court may ultimately decide itself, rather than defer to the Copyright Office, whether Internet-based retransmission services fall within the meaning of a “cable system” under Section 111. The outcome of such a ruling could have a momentous impact on the entertainment industry.


Joshua A. Bornstein is an associate in the firm’s Entertainment Department, based in its Los Angeles office.

John Simson writes:

The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Music Modernization Act last week by a vote of 415-0! Imagine our divided Congress passing anything with no opposition. This is actually not uncommon with music industry issues when the interests of both the major user companies and major owner companies align so there is little or no opposition.

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.What exactly is the Music Modernization Act? The House version is the combination of three separate bills, two of which have been percolating for several years: The CLASSICS Act and the AMP Act. The CLASSICS Act will “fix” a major loophole in U.S. Copyright Law, the protection of pre-1972 recordings; the AMP Act will fix a smaller loophole in the Copyright Law as to how Music Producers, Remixers and Engineers get paid by SoundExchange. (We will discuss the specifics of these two parts of the bill in another post). The third piece of the MMA, its main driver and the reason why it is so critical to the music industry going forward is an overhaul of Section 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act, the compulsory license for the use of compositions. For those unfamiliar with copyright law, a “compulsory license” means that a user such as a record company can license a composition by paying the owner a license fee that is determined by statue without the necessity of negotiating directly with the owner. The reproduction of compositions on records and CDs is a compulsory license, referred to as a “mechanical license.”

A Brief History In Time

Over a decade ago, before Spotify, Apple, Tidal and most other on-demand services were operational, the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) and the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) reached an agreement: for a nominal payment by the record companies to the publishers, the publishers would allow the development of on-demand services and wait and see to determine what fees should be charged for this new kind of service. Most important in this deal: the publishers received recognition that this use would be treated as a mechanical license, even though this does not necessarily follow from the nature of on-demand streaming. It is certainly true that a user of these services does have temporary reproductions on their devices, sometimes called tethered downloads because they are tethered to your subscription. On the other hand, were you to cancel your subscription, these reproductions disappear. They are also limited in that you cannot legally make copies of them as you would for a permanent download. However, this new recognition of a mechanical right in an on-demand stream was not accompanied by any major change in the section 115 Compulsory License that governs such mechanical reproductions.

What resulted was a disaster. Trying to shoehorn a new streaming mechanical into a 1909 law that was created for the reproduction of piano rolls, essentially one song at a time licensing, did not work. The 1909 law had adapted adequately to the transition from piano rolls to 78’s to LP’s and other limited media, with a limit of 15-20 compositions unless a box set where it might balloon to 60-80 titles. But the application of the law to on-demand streaming services that needed to license 30 million songs was impossible.

For streaming services, the task was daunting to obtain all of these licenses one at a time. The music industry had also undergone a fundamental change. For all past distributions of recordings, the record company stood as the gateway to the payment whether from retail establishments or from digital download services like iTunes. The record label would receive payment for the recordings as well as the for the compositions on behalf of music publishers and then pass through the publishing monies to the appropriate publishers or their representatives based upon the Section 115 licenses or other similar licenses they had negotiated. But this practice ended with on-demand streaming mechanicals. Record companies in their licenses with Spotify and others specifically required the service to license the publishers separately as they realized how great the burden would be to handle the mechanical royalty payments for the streaming services.

A Massive Problem to Solve

Over the years, the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) administered many of the Section 115 mechanical license agreements. Their agreement was a bit easier than the Copyright Office license. The Copyright Office license required monthly accountings while HFA’s was quarterly. But HFA never represented all works so attempting to get full coverage through HFA licenses was spotty at best. Over the years, they quoted 60-70% coverage but frequently couldn’t tell you which of your tracks wasn’t covered. Other services were also created to administer this right but the main problem persisted: there was no industry-wide database to inform a user where to go to get a license and the different services administering licenses were incomplete in their coverage. A user was at grave risk of infringement lawsuits for distributing unlicensed works.

Closeup of earbuds and smartphone

The MMA’s Proposed Solution

Long after the 1909 Act was enacted to govern the reproduction of compositions, another compulsory license for music was passed in 1995: the Digital Performance in Sound Recordings Act (DPRA). The DPRA provided a new license for non-interactive webcasters, satellite and cable services to stream sound recordings. This license provided that any service that wanted to stream could do so if they followed certain rules and provided payments and data. Section 114 of the Copyright Act which created this new compulsory license was also distinct from Section 115 in one major way: while Section 115 requires notice to the publisher 30 days in advance of distribution, Section 114 had no notice requirement at all. Any non-interactive service could stream any commercially released sound recording without prospect of being sued by the owner of the recording if the service provided data of what they were streaming and made payments based upon the terms of their license. The organization that was created to administer the Section 114 license is SoundExchange. (In full disclosure, I assisted in the development of SoundExchange at the RIAA in 2000 and served as its Executive Director from 2001-2010.)

In recognizing that Section 115 needed an overhaul to survive in the digital age, both users and owners got together and created a proposal to essentially mirror the Section 114 provisions removing the requirement of notice to publishers in advance of distribution: the result is that if this law passes, on-demand services can simply pay and provide data and be immune from lawsuits. Another “problem” with the current section 115 is that if a songwriter/publisher does not register their work with the Copyright Office AND an on-demand service sends a notice to the Copyright Office that they can’t find that songwriter/publisher, the service owes the songwriter/publisher NOTHING until they finally register their work. While the service has to pay a filing fee to the Copyright Office of roughly ten cents ($.10), the songwriter/publisher gets nothing! The updated law will fix that. Now, the on-demand service provider pays the new collecting society, to be created by the MMA for everything, and content owners claim against what is paid into the society.

One major striking difference between Section 114 and the proposed MMA is that there is very little language in Section 114 about the collecting society that could be formed by content owners. Section 114 did provide an anti-trust exemption to allow all content owners to create an “agent” or multiple agents to negotiate compulsory license voluntary rates with users, participate in Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) proceedings to set rates if voluntary negotiations failed and to collect and distribute payments to those entitled to royalties. Initially, the collective under Section 114 was subject to Copyright Office regulation but that role now falls under the auspices of the CRB.

Statutory language in the proposed MMA not only authorizes the creation of a new collecting society but sets forth in great detail many aspects of the organization’s structure, including the composition of the Board, composition of various committees, retention periods for undistributed royalties and much, much more. Where SoundExchange grew somewhat organically, this new collective is being created by statute.

Some outside groups have pushed back against the composition of the Board that would be created by the MMA to govern the collecting society. They don’t like that it is overwhelmingly controlled by music publishers with very few seats given to songwriters. They point to the SoundExchange Board which is an equal board between recording artists and record label representatives as evidence that this new organization needs more songwriter members; but they fail to point out that mechanical royalties unlike performance royalties, have always been paid directly to music publishers who recoup advances from these royalties and then split the money with their songwriters. Given this historical backdrop and practice, this is essentially a land grab by songwriters. (It should also be pointed out that songwriters seem to have no problem affiliating with BMI which has no songwriters on its Board of Directors!)

One issue that should be fixed in the MMA concerns “black box” money: those royalties collected that can’t be distributed, either due to the failure of a publisher or self-published songwriter to register with the new collective or due to bad data being supplied by the user. Currently, the legislation provides a three-year holding period and then a distribution proportionate to the overall market share of copyright owners. SoundExchange’s early experience with black box money is illustrative and leads to the conclusion that the new collective should wait at least five years to flush its undistributed royalties. It will take time for songwriters and independent publishers to get up to speed, to try and find their repertoire which may be poorly reported. It will take time for older songwriters and publishers to learn about these new developments. Congress may be passing new legislation which affects rights but Congress typically doesn’t expend any money to educate the community about these new rights and how they may be exercised.

Hopefully, the on-demand services that want this new legislation so badly that they are willing to pay the costs of running the collective, will highlight the changes on their services. While these services are primarily consumer-facing, it would be highly appropriate for them to send messages to songwriters and music publishers telling them about the new regime and how to ensure they are collecting their rightful share.

Hearings on the bill have begun in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The MMA is a long overdue fix to the problems of Section 115 and while it won’t cure all of them it is an important step in the right direction.


John Simson is counsel in the firm’s Entertainment Department, based in its Washington, D.C. office.

The jury has spoken. After a saga worth of Homer, Comic-Con is a valid trademark.

The battle began when, the organizers of San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), the 50-year old grandaddy of fan conventions, sued the producers of Salt Lake Comic Con for infringement. As we previously reported, the defendants struck back by asserting that comic con (no hyphen) had become a generic descriptor for comic book conventions, citing the scores of events around the country that describe themselves the same way.

The case took a curious turn when the trial judge issued a gag order against the defendants prohibiting them from taking their case to social media, bringing First Amendment issues into what was otherwise a straightforward trademark case. The Salt Lake crew challenged this order by seeking a writ of mandamus from the Circuit Court, which agreed with them and vacated the order.

The case went to trial in early December, with a verdict in favor of the San Diego Comic-Con. The jury found both that the plaintiff’s mark is valid and also that it was infringed. It determined, however, that the infringement was not willful, and awarded only $20,000 in damages rather than the $12 million demanded by the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, armed with a finding of validity, SDCC could be emboldened to take action against other comic book conventions.

The defendants, meanwhile, have not laid down their weapons. They’ve announced an intention to appeal the verdict and are also pursuing an petition before the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the rival mark.

 

10066940 – super hero and a ninja doing battle.

I’ve blogged here and here about the pending trademark infringement case brought by SDCC, the registered owners of the San Diego Comic-Con mark, against the producers of Salt Lake Comic Con. The Utah group had launched an aggressive social media campaign to draw moral and financial support from fans and organizers of other Comic Cons around the country. The plaintiff persuaded the trial judge, Anthony Battaglia, to issue a gag order to halt against this campaign on the ground that the extensive posts would taint the San Diego jury pool.

The Utahans appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in an order issued on October 26 that the gag order was unconstitutional. The court noted that prior restraints on speech are highly disfavored except in the most extreme circumstances, such as a clear and present danger to safety or a serious and imminent threat to SDCC’s interest in a fair trial. The defendants’ social media campaign did not, the court held, rise to this level. The court compared the defendant’s Twitter following of 35,000 against the jury pool of nearly 2 million and concluded that the plaintiff would certainly be able to find 12 unbiased jurors out of that large group. Moreover, Judge Battaglia should have recognized that less restrictive and routine procedures such as voir dire, jury sequestration and jury instructions would be sufficient to protect SDCC’s rights. The court also expressed raised the specter of a slippery slope, in that allowing the order to stand would justify similar orders “in almost any situation where an article is written or a statement is made in a public forum.”

This interesting but collateral issue having been disposed of, the parties can resume their progress toward what will presumably be a well-publicized trial.