Articles Posted in Trademark and Copyright Litigation

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Attorneys generally get a bad reputation from those who think they’re motivated too much by money and not enough by serving their clients, but according to a recent indictment against Paul Hansmeier and John Steele, these two attorneys were allegedly using the courts to extort money from their opponents, rather than their clients.

The two attorneys attended the University of Minnesota Law School together, and while Hansmeier still lives in Minnesota, Steele is licensed in Illinois. According to the indictment, the two attorneys allegedly created sham companies in 2010, which they used to acquire the rights to certain pornographic films, some of which they made themselves. Then Steele and Hansmeier allegedly uploaded their copyrighted porn to file-sharing websites, knowing people would download their porn. Steele and Hansmeier would then file a copyright lawsuit against the individual on behalf of their “clients” – which were, in fact, the companies they themselves owned.

Then Steele and Hansmeier would allegedly petition the courts to require internet service providers to provide the identities of the people who had downloaded the porn. Once they had acquired those identities, the attorneys allegedly offered to settle the lawsuit for about $4,000. The alternative was to face public exposure and fines that could potentially get as high as $150,000. Many of their victims were either too humiliated and/or financially incapable of dealing with the lawsuit, so they often accepted the settlement offer. Continue reading

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When business deals go bad, the parties have the option of suing for breach of contract, depending on how much money was at stake and whether they can prove the other party failed to uphold their end of the bargain. But those who consider taking their grievances to court would be well advised to make sure they were the only injured party. Otherwise they could find themselves being forced to pay the people they’re trying to sue, which is exactly what happened to Play Beverages and CirTran after they filed a lawsuit against Playboy for an alleged breach of contract.

In fall of 2006, Playboy entered into a license agreement with Play Beverages that gave exclusive international distribution rights to the beverage company. The contract was for 20 years and included an option for the parties to renew the agreement ever five years.

Almost a year after this contract was signed, Play Beverages signed a contract with CirTran giving it limited rights to the manufacture and distribution of Playboy’s energy drink.

By the time they filed their lawsuit against Playboy, Play Beverages and CirTran allege they had successfully launched Playboy’s beverage in more than 30 countries and acquired distributors for an additional 80 countries. Despite these gains, the plaintiffs admitted they had not managed to meet the minimum sales target required by the license agreement. Continue reading

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In addition to individual keywords playing an important role in digital marketing, strings of keywords, or phrases, are also important. They help people narrow down their search by providing content that’s more specific to what they’re looking for.

But when people search multiple keywords, unless they put quotation marks around the phrase, online search engines will produce results that include those words in various combinations. This is why one company’s name or trademark does not need to look identical to another’s in order to cause confusion.

According to a recent trademark infringement lawsuit against Houston College of Law (formerly known as South Texas College of Law), the school’s new name and logo bore remarkable similarities to those of the University of Houston Law Center. The University of Houston published a statement pointing out these similarities and the problems they might cause, and when the college refused to do anything about it, the university sued to get the college to stop using the new name and logo. Continue reading

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The only “Blurred Line” Robin Thicke is dealing with right now is the one between paying homage to another artist’s creation and ripping it off.

The question of when, exactly, a certain piece of art goes from evoking another to infringing on the earlier piece’s copyright is a question that all artists have to deal with at some point in their careers and it’s never easy to answer.

Thicke’s hit single, “Blurred Lines,” which was released in 2013 and named Song of the Summer, has earned profits of more than $16 million for the singer/songwriter and his co-songwriter, Pharrell Williams.

But according to Marvin Gaye’s family, the hit song sounded too much like Gaye’s own hit, “Got to Give It Up,” to be anything other than outright plagiarism. Frankie and Nona Gaye, two of Marvin Gaye’s children, sued Thicke and Williams for copyright infringement in 2013 when “Blurred Lines” was still ranked Number 1. Continue reading

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Value stores like Meijer and T.J. Maxx, which have built a reputation for providing discounted items, allegedly don’t always use the best business practices for attaining those items. Many of them are sourced from outside the U.S., where labor is cheap, and allegedly sometimes they resort to knockoffs, which are usually cheaper versions of a patented and/or well-known design.

When Design Ideas, a design firm based in Springfield, IL, refused to lower its price on its Sparrow Clips, the retailers threatened to purchase the clips from another vendor. Design Ideas pointed out that it owned the Sparrow Clips’s exclusive copyright, which it had purchased from Pititas Waiwiriya, the Thai designer who allegedly invented the clothespins that come in multiple colors and are topped with the outline of a small bird.

After Design Ideas refused to lower their price, Meijer allegedly started buying “Canary Clips,” a knockoff produced by a company called Whitmor. Whitmor is another vendor that provides products to large retailers across the country, including T.J. Maxx and Meijer.

After someone who worked for Design Ideas allegedly saw the knockoffs being sold at a T.J. Maxx and a Meijer in Springfield, Design Ideas responded by filing a copyright lawsuit against its former customers.

In the claim they filed, Design Ideas included an email that allegedly showed Whitmor asking a Chinese manufacturer how much it would cost them to produce a knockoff of the Sparrow Clips. In that same email, Whitmor also allegedly asked the knockoff manufacturer to research the original mold and discover whether or not it was protected by a patent. Whitmor denies having ever sent such an email. Continue reading

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Most people who are active on the internet are accustomed to seeing many different memes on a daily basis. People take famous photos or freeze frames from movies, attach their own funny and/or enlightening quotes to them and post them on the internet. Some of these memes go viral and get seen by millions of people, but few people ever stop to think about who owns these memes.

In the United States, memes are most often generated and distributed without much, if any, thought to copyright issues, but it’s a slightly different story in Germany. Recently Get Digital, a German company, received a notification that it owed Getty Images licensing fees for a penguin meme that appeared on one of its blogs.

Getty Images owns the rights to National Geographic‘s photos and the meme on Get Digital’s blog allegedly originated from a photo taken by a National Geographic staff photographer. Get Digital claims the amount Getty Images demanded was double what would be considered a normal licensing fee, but the company paid up anyway. It wasn’t until Getty Images allegedly required confidentiality regarding the transaction that Get Digital decided it had had enough. Continue reading

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Trademarks can be trickier than a lot of people realize. Although it would be wonderful to simply tell the government you’re trademarking something and rest assured that it will be protected from that point on, the realities of applying for and protecting one’s trademark status are much more blurry.

This continues to be even increasingly the case as our markets become more and more globalized. Although a complaint for an alleged trademark violation would normally have to prove the defendant was infringing on the plaintiff’s market, defining the line between markets has gotten increasingly difficult with both the advent of the Internet and advances in technology that make travel easier and less painful.

A U.S. district court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Trader Joe’s for alleged patent infringement, but Trader Joe’s appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the appellate court decided to revive the grocery store’s claims. Continue reading

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Mortgage loan servicer Quicken Loans Inc. ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Act when it adopted a policy prohibiting its mortgage bankers from using or disclosing personnel information or publicly criticizing the company. That was the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Quicken Loans Inc. v. NLRB, No. 14-1231 (D.C. Cir. 2016), after the National Labor Relations Board had determined that Quicken’s rules unreasonably burdened its employees’ ability to discuss legitimate employment matters, protest employer practices, and organize.

Quicken mortgage bankers were required to sign “proprietary/confidential information” and “non-disparagement” rules. Confidential information included personnel files, rosters, and handbooks. Bankers had to agree not to “publicly criticize, ridicule, disparage, or defame” the company or its management, orally or in writing, including on websites, blogs, or emails.

Lydia G. was a mortgage banker in Quicken’s Scottsdale, Arizona office. After she took a job with one of Quicken’s competitors, Quicken sued her for violating her employment agreement. Lydia filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB alleging that Quicken’s confidentiality and non-disparagement rules interfered with its employees’ rights under the NLRA.

Section 7 of the NLRA protects employees’ rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment, criticize or complain about their employer or work conditions, and enlist others in addressing employment matters. Employers that restrict the rights guaranteed by Section 7 commit an unfair labor practice.

Whether workplace rules run afoul of Section 7 turns on whether they “would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights,” either facially, in effect, or in application (Lafayette Park Hotel, 326 NLRB 824 (1998)). Continue reading

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Many of us have heard of art historians debating whether a new-found painting was created by a certain artist, but it’s much more rare to hear of such a debate over a painting allegedly created by an artist who’s still living. Even more rare is the owner of a painting suing the artist he claims painted it, but that’s exactly what Robert Fletcher, a 62-year-old retired corrections officer, is doing.

Fletcher was working in a correctional facility in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1975 when he met a young man named Peter Doige who was from Scotland and was taking classes at a local college. Doige was brought to the prison farm Fletcher worked at on an LSD charge, and Fletcher says he saw Doige creating a painting of a rocky desert scene using acrylic and canvas and offered to buy it from him. Continue reading

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It’s common to hear artists talk about their work as being an homage to the work of another artist they admire or someone they once worked with, but sometimes the line between being influenced by an artist and stealing from that artist can get pretty blurry.

Randy Wolfe was a songwriter and member of the rock band Spirit. He wrote the band’s song “Taurus,” the opening chords of which sounded remarkably similar to the opening of the Led Zeppelin’s legendary song, “Stairway to Heaven.” Led Zeppelin and Spirit played some shows when they were touring together, which allegedly gave Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who wrote the seminal “Stairway to Heaven,” access to the Spirit’s song, “Taurus,” which was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven.”

Wolfe had complained on multiple occasions about the similarities between his song and “Stairway to Heaven,” saying he felt ripped off, but he never filed a copyright lawsuit against Led Zeppelin. When Wolfe died in an accident in 1997, Michael Skidmore became the trustee of Wolfe’s songs. Skidmore initially thought suing Led Zeppelin would be like David taking on Goliath, so he didn’t pursue the matter until Francis Malofiy, an American attorney, convinced Skidmore he had a case. Continue reading