Response to Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines

11/6/2015 - Taurid Meteor Shower - Joshua Tree , CA by Channone Arif from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

11/6/2015 – Taurid Meteor Shower – Joshua Tree , CA by Channone Arif from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

In light of the recent lawsuit between CBS and Paramount Pictures and a Star Trek fan film creator, CBS and Paramount released guidelines regarding fan-created films.

Previously, fan fiction movies were limited to camcorders and sets people created in their backyards, but now with computer animation and other technology, a fan could create an impressive work of fan fiction. You can see some earlier Trek fan fiction on the documentary Trekkies.

A friend asked me to weigh in on these guidelines. As a die-hard Star Trek fan, my legal interpretation may be slightly biased in favor of promoting fandom. Below are the guidelines in full with my comments in italics:

CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity (I’m glad you support fan art/fiction. Star Trek is known for inviting fan-submitted scripts, but what do you mean by “reasonable?”), and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek. Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines. (It’s nice when people tell you how not to get sued.)

Guidelines for Avoiding Objections:
1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes. Is this because you don’t want fan fiction to compete with the TV series and movies? I wonder if someone is less likely to make significant money from a one-off video vs. a series. I wonder if the copyright holder would have objected if Melissa Hunter only made one Adult Wednesday Addams video instead of two seasons.)

2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production. (This makes sense from a trademark perspective. With brands creating content in various genres, it’s important to avoid confusing viewers about what is/is not made by the brand vs fans.)

3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing. (This makes sense because of copyright. It’s ok to copy ideas, but not the original work itself. This may be overstepping a little bit depending on how they define “recreations.”)

In my Starfleet uniform and Trill Make-up, 2000

In my Starfleet uniform and Trill Make-up, 2000

4. If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products. (I understand that they want to promote their partners and don’t want fans being misled. However, it makes more sense to require disclosure of sources of props and costumes. Some fans prefer to have a tailor custom-make uniforms instead of buying them from commercial sources. And thank you for calling them uniforms, not costumes – as a fan and Starfleet officer myself, I appreciate that.)

5. The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees. (What?! This seems overreaching and overly broad, especially considering that non-compete agreements are not permitted in California. Past and current employees can have non-disclosure agreements that limit their participation in other projects. Even a hobbyist has to pay for certain things – like a musician paying for studio time.)

6. The fan production must be non-commercial (This makes sense. Many artists approve of fan art as long as the person isn’t selling their work.):

  • CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease. (Thank you for understanding that hobbyists have expenses – despite your contradictory term above.)
  • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue. (Ok – so you can’t submit your video to film festivals or run ads on it if you post on YouTube.)
  • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray. (This makes sense given current technology. They want to protect their intellectual property.)
  • The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production. (Fair enough.)
  • No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising. (This makes sense in terms of protecting their intellectual property, and also makes it more challenging to use fundraising sites.)
  • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes. (Agreed. This makes sense.)

7. The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy. (I understand no porn, but no illegal activities? What are the bad guys supposed to do? Even Star Trek episodes and films depictions of tobacco and alcohol and the films contain the occasional swear word.)

8. The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production:

“Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use. No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.” (This makes sense, but the last sentence suggests that CBS and Paramount may be able to use fan-created content without obtaining the creators’ permission.)

Hanging with the Klingons, Grand Slam Star Trek Convention, 2001

Hanging with the Klingons, Grand Slam Star Trek Convention, 2001

9. Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law. (What about the fans’ rights to protect their original works of authorship and their brands that don’t infringe on CBS or Paramount’s rights?)

10. Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures. (Agreed.)

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines. (This makes sense as long as CBS and Paramount don’t change the rules and go after a fan film creator who reasonably complied with the guidelines as written at that time.)

I appreciate that CBS and Paramount Pictures’ desire to protect their intellectual property and that put out guidelines to further this goal, but I wish they would be more fan-friendly. Hopefully this is only an over-zealous reaction to the recent lawsuit and not a sign of future legal battles between Star Trek and their fans.

If you have questions about the legalities of fan art/fiction or you just want to geek out about Star Trek, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Fair Use Victory!

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Ninth Circuit of the Federal Court handed down an important ruling regarding fair use this week. In Lenz v. Universal, aka the “Dancing Baby” case was about copyright, DMCA takedown notices, and fair use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Universal Music Publishing Group after Universal sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice when a mother uploaded a 29-second video of her baby dancing to a Prince song.

The key element of this court ruling is that the court declared that “copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a [DMCA] takedown notice.” Prior to this case, fair use was regarded as an “affirmative defense.” If you’ve seen my YouTube videos, you have seen this one where I declare, “Fair use is a defense, not a permission slip.” This court said that’s not the case, but rather that fair use is authorized by the Federal Copyright Act. There is no copyright infringement if your use of another’s copyright-protected work is permitted by fair use.

If you’re interested in learning more about fair use, I wrote a post that includes a mnemonic device for the fair use factors for a panel I did at Phoenix Comicon on fair use and fan art/fiction.

There are two downsides to the case (at least for now):

  1. Although the court said that copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a DMCA takedown notice, they only have to have subjective good faith belief that the use of the copyrighted work is illegal, even if this belief is objectively unreasonable.
  2. This ruling only applies to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is comprised of Arizona, California, and most of the western United States. However, this ruling is not binding on the other ten Circuit Courts, but they can take it under advisement in future cases.

This case is a step in the right direction and will hopefully lead to fewer abuses of the DMCA. You can read the EFF’s full report about the case here.

Footnote: This case took eight years to reach this ruling. Sometimes pursuing a lawsuit is the right decision, but you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

How the copyright laws apply to the internet is a legal issue that is constantly developing. If you need a resource about how the law applies to social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about a specific question related to copyright or internet law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

What Happened to Adult Wednesday Addams?

Haunted House by barb_ar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Haunted House by barb_ar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Earlier this year, I discovered Melissa Hunter’s “Adult Wednesday Addams” on YouTube. It’s a collection of short videos featuring Melissa playing a grown-up version of the iconic Addams Family character. In each video, Melissa dresses up like Wednesday Addams (black dress, long braids, pale skin, and deadpan attitude) and plays out everyday occurrences (like interviewing to be someone’s roommate and going to work) while embodying the Wednesday Addams character. She is a talented, smart, and funny writer.

Recently I noticed that all of Melissa’s adult Wednesday Addams videos were pulled from her YouTube channel. (You can still find them on others’ channels.) Apparently, Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the copyright holder for the Addams Family, flagged her videos for copyright infringement after her video where Adult Wednesday Addams responds to catcallers gained attention by the international press.

So of course, my question in this situation is, “Are the Adult Wednesday Addams videos infringing on the original Addams Family copyright or are they protected by fair use?”

The law is complicated and there is no mathematical equation that will definitively show whether this is fair use. That is up to a court to decide based on the merits of the case. There are four main fair use factors. I created an acronym of the fair use factors when I spoke at Phoenix Comicon last year on fan art and copyright: PAIN.

P = Purpose and character of your use

A = Amount of the original used

I = Impact on the market

N = Nature of the work you copied

Here’s my take on how the fair use factors apply to this situation:

  • P (Purpose): Adult Wednesday Addams transforms the original Wednesday Addams character who was a tween in the latest Addams Family movie (Favors Melissa). I don’t remember if Melissa was running ads on her videos, but if she was, that would be a strike against her – but not a deal breaker (Favors Addams Foundation).
  • A (Amount): Compared to the entire Addams Family franchise, Melissa only used a single character (Favors Melissa) but compared to the copyright in the Wednesday Addams character herself, Melissa copied a substantial amount (Favors Addams Foundation). However, part of what makes Adult Wednesday Addams work is that we know that she is copying the original. That’s what makes it so funny, and parody is generally protected by fair use.
  • I (Impact on the market): Apparently there is a new project in the works for the Addams Family, but I don’t know if Melissa’s work will have any effect on that. Melissa’s videos are only a few minutes long, compared to the longer TV shows and movies created using the original characters’ story line. Her work is definitely not a viable substitute for those (Favors Melissa).
  • N (Nature of copied work): The Addams Family has been made into cartoons, a TV show, and movies. Melissa Hunter created short YouTube videos. Although these are both audiovisual works, they cater to different audiences (Favors Melissa).

Do I think what Melissa did was fair use? Yes. I hope she’s fighting the claim that her work is copyright infringement, and I hope whoever is working on the Addams Family remake offers to hire her. Remember, fair use is a defense, not a permission slip, so Melissa has to prove to the court that what she did was legal if she chooses to fight this.

Yesterday, Melissa released a video with an update about Adult Wednesday Addams:

I’m glad to see that Melissa is as sassy as ever and that she’s working on this while putting energy into new projects too. Keep wearing that dress!

Fair use cases are usually complicated. If you want to chat more about fair use and copyright, please contact me or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Creator Rights | Phoenix Comicon Recap

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon - sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon – sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

I had an awesome time presenting on Creator Rights at Phoenix Comicon this year with Javier Hernandez. His comic book series, El Muerto, was recently made into a movie and a fan created a fan film that was shown at the Con. It was really interesting to hear his story as an artist trying to muddle through the legalities of working in the arts with the help of his lawyer.

I don’t prepare much for my talks at Phoenix Comicon. I feel like it’s my job to be there to explain legal concepts in plain English and answer the audience’s questions about copyright, trademarks, contracts, and fan art. There’s always a fun smart audience with thoughtful questions. It’s a privilege to be invited back multiple times. Here are some of the highlights from this year.

You have Rights in your Original Creations
There is no legal protection for ideas but there is for original works of authorship once you’ve captured your ideas in a tangible medium such as paper or a digital file. The copyright laws were designed to protect original storylines and fully-formulated characters. I often recommend that artists at least register their “story bible” with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their legal rights related to their work.

Once you create a comic, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or make derivative works from your original work. That’s why the movie studio had to get the option (aka license) from Javier to make a movie from El Muerto, because a movie is a derivative work. Javier didn’t authorize the creation of the fan film and so when he went to see it, part of his motivation was to see if he wanted to exert his legal rights to stop the creators from showing it in other forums.

Protect your Trademarks
Someone in the audience shared a horrific story. He created a comic and after he started sharing his work with others, someone else started a similar comic – with the same name. Here’s the kicker, the second guy registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What a nightmare. I told him to call a lawyer to try to sort out this mess.

A lot of beginning artists and people who create art as a hobby don’t understand their rights and how they can avoid problems like this by registering their trademark before their competition does. Or if they understand their rights, they don’t invest the money to file the proper applications with the federal government. These types of problems happen all the time. Check out what happened when two restaurants decided to call themselves “Burger King.”

When Contracts are Involved, Call a Lawyer
If you are lucky enough to create art that someone wants to buy or license, call a lawyer. The other side is going to present you with a contract that was written solely based on their interests. You need someone who is equally versed in entertainment contracts to represent you. Lawyers talk to lawyers – so hire someone who can explain the process, understand your priorities, and advise you of your options.

Javier and I had a fantastic time doing this panel – sharing our experiences and knowledge from the creator’s and lawyer’s perspective. It was a wonderful juxtaposition for the audience. I also did a panel at Phoenix Comicon on Fan Art/Fiction and Copyright. If you want to know more about that specific topic, check out this post I wrote last year with a handy mnemonic device.

If you have questions or want to chat more about creator rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Intellectual Property in Comic Books

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I had the pleasure of presenting on Comic Book Creator Rights with the award-winner comic author Mike Baron at Phoenix Comicon last weekend. We talked about how important it is for writers and artists to understand what rights they have in their work and the various ways they can protect it.

Copyright
An artist or writer has copyright rights in their work the moment they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. As the owner of their work, they can control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made.

Unlike books where a complete story is often contained in a single volume, a comic book story may be broken up into several 22-page issues. One thing Mike and I suggested to our audience was registering the copyright in the “story bible” as well as each issue that the artist creates. A story bible is a master document that lays out the setting and norms of that universe and the backstory and characteristics of each major character.

The copyright laws regarding infringement for published and unpublished works are different, and under the current laws (that are in need of overhaul), a work that is released only online is “unpublished.” To maximize your options for recourse (i.e., financial damages), I advise artists to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office before they release it if it is unpublished. Mike also suggested doing a short run of each issue so the work will qualify as “published” and the rules about when you have to register to be eligible for what’s called statutory damages are more favorable.

Trademark
A comic book artist could have several trademarks related to their series – the name of the series, logos, slogans, and the name and possibly depiction of the characters. Any or all of these could be trademarks used to market the artist’s work.

For each of these potential trademarks, it’s a good idea to run a search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) trademark database to make sure that another artist doesn’t already have the exclusive right to use that trademark in relation to comic books or similar products. If they do, they can force the other person to rebrand.

If the desired trademarks are available, putting a superscript “TM” next to them will put everyone on notice that the artist is using them as trademarks, not just elements in their series.  Registering them with the USPTO will increase their value and give the artist the exclusive right to use those trademarks. No one else in the industry could have the same trademark in the U.S. Registration also increases their value and may make the artist’s work more desirable if their goal is to be acquired.

Identifying and creating a strategy to protect your intellectual property is complicated, so if you want to talk more about this subject, feel free to  connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Fan Art and Copyright: You May Have Rights

Hairy Situation by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Hairy Situation by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Let me tell you a story. MGM owns the copyright for The Wizard of Oz. In 1976, they hired Bradford Exchange to create a series of Wizard of Oz collector plates. Bradford had a competition for the “Dorothy” plate design. Jorie Gracen submitted a design that clearly depicted Dorothy, Toto, and the yellow brick road, but the image doesn’t match any screenshot from the film. Gracen’s design won but she refused to sign the contract to turn her painting into the plate. Bradford allegedly gave her painting to another artist who used it to create a similar design which was made into the plate.

Gracen sued Bradford and MGM for copyright infringement…and she lost, but this is a pivotal case regarding derivative works.

This is a picture of the plate that was actually made that is remarkably similar to Gracen's painting

This is a picture of the plate that was actually made that is remarkably similar to Gracen’s painting

The collector plates were derivative works; however, Gracen was acting in compliance with Bradford’s direction when she created her design. She couldn’t get a copyright in her work because it was based on the movie but she couldn’t get in trouble for simply creating it for the contest.

Bradford’s mistake was they didn’t include a copyright assignment or license in the competition rules. I would expect a similar contest to include a provision that everything the artist creates for the contest becomes the proper of the contest organizers or the company they represent.

Here’s the big lesson I take away from this case – if a copyright holder tells fans to create fan fiction or fan art, the fans’ work may not be original enough to warrant their own copyrights, but they shouldn’t get in trouble for creating something that they have been authorized to create.

However, the fans may only be able to create fan fiction or fan art; they may be committing infringement if they try to distribute it. I would expect the copyright holder to be especially upset if you try to sell your work because you could be interfering with their profits and/or hurting their brand with inferior artwork.

I will be doing two panels on copyright at Phoenix Comicon this weekend:

  • Comic Book Creator Rights, Saturday, June 7, 2014, 10:30 a.m., North 130 with Mike Baron
  • Copyright and Fan Fiction/Art, Sunday, June 8, 2014, 12 p.m. North 130

Copyright is a murky subject. If you want to chat more with me about this subject, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Is It Fan Art or Copyright Infringement?

Toying with the Men by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Toying With The Men by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I have the pleasure of speaking about copyright and fan fiction and fan art at Phoenix Comicon this year. It’s always fun to hear about the projects fans are working on, and to see that so many of them are mindful about the copyright. I wish I had more black and white answers for them about what they can and can’t do.

Fan fiction and fan art falls squarely into the murky realm of copyright and fair use. The owner of a copyright controls where and how their work is copied, displayed, distributed, performed, and what derivative works are made. Fan fiction and fan art can be derivative works but they also may be protected by fair use.

Fair use is part of the copyright laws that acknowledges the fact that many works are inspired by past art. This law allows artists to build on existing works in creative and innovative ways. One thing to always remember is that fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. There is always a risk that the copyright holder will claim you’re infringing on their copyright and you’ll have to basically tell the court, “Yes your honor, I used their work but it’s OK because . . . .”

When a court considers a fair use case, these are some of the main factors it considers:

  • Purpose and character of your use of another’s work (Is what you did transformative and did you do it for commercial use?)
  • Nature of the copyrighted work (What did you copy?)
  • Amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used (How much of the original – quality and quantity – did you copy?)
  • Effect on the market (Would someone seek out the original and accept your work as a substitute?)

These are some of the main factors, but the court can consider others if it wishes. This is also not to be treated as mathematical equation. Regardless of how many fair use factors favor you, you can always lose.

For Phoenix Comicon this year, I wanted to create an easy mnemonic device that fans can use to remember the fair use factors; and here it is: PAIN.

P = Purpose and character of your use

A = Amount of the original used

I = Impact on the market

N = Nature of the work you copied

Another thing to consider if you want to use another artist’s work is how the copyright holder historically responds to fan fiction and fan art. Some encourage it; some are OK with it as long as you’re not making money off of it; some are OK with it as long as it’s not sexual (i.e., slash fiction); and some dislike all fan fiction and fan art and will try to lay the smackdown on you if you create it.

If you want to talk more about the legalities of fan fiction and fan art, come see me at Phoenix Comicon on Sunday, June 8th at noon. Both talks will be in North 130. I’m also doing a panel on Creator Rights on Saturday, June 7th at 10:30 a.m.  You can connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

The Legalities of having a Bat Signal

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have the palette of a five year-old and a massive sweet tooth – especially for ice cream. I would love to have a bat signal – well something like it but only in the shape of an ice cream cone. I want to be able to turn my bat signal on and have multiple people calling and texting to ask “What flavor?”

Unfortunately, bat signals are illegal in Arizona. I was driving around this past December with a friend who remarked that a business that had moving spotlights pointing up at the sky was violating of a city ordinance. This inspired me to be a legal geek and look up why bat signals are illegal in the Arizona criminal laws and the Phoenix city ordinances. Here’s what I came up with.

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Disorderly Conduct (Class 1 Misdemeanor)
Disorderly conduct is a catch-all law written to apply to activities that the powers that be dislike but where there isn’t a specific law on point. The Arizona disorderly conduct law prohibits excessive noise, but not excessive light. The law does prohibit “fighting, violent or seriously disruptive behavior,” but there may be an argument that a bat signal may be disruptive, but it shouldn’t be treated as being in the same category as physical violence.

Public Nuisance (Class 2 Misdemeanor)
I think this is what you might get if your neighbors call the cops on you. In Arizona it’s illegal to do anything that is “injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons.” If your bat signal is so bright that it interferes with your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their property, it could be illegal.

Criminal Nuisance (Class 3 Misdemeanor)
In Arizona, a criminal nuisance is “conduct either unlawful in itself or unreasonable under the circumstances,” such as a person who “recklessly creates or maintains a condition which endangers the safety or health of others.” I could see law enforcement making a strong argument that turning on a bat signal could be hazardous to other’s safety, especially if it limits people’s ability to see or disrupt traffic on the streets or in the air.

The City of Phoenix has city ordinances that require outdoor lighting to be shielded and/or filtered – including spotlights. The City also has rules against disturbing the peace or creating a nuisance that is “offensive to the senses.” The rules for using a searchlight say you can’t have one within 150 feet of a residential structure, that it can only be used between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., and it can’t contain any advertising. I don’t think my bat signal is advertising because I’d use to get people to bring me ice cream, not to sell anything.

I suspect if you want to have a bat signal, you’d have to get a permit to use it only for a special event and then after that it could only be used for show. The Phoenix rules require you to file for a permit at least 45 days in advance. I can’t plan my ice cream cravings out that far. It’s too bad – it would have been awesome to have a bat signal.

If you want to chat more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Can You Trademark a Hashtag?

Rémi Beaupré, Meme Snippets, 2012 by Retis from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Rémi Beaupré, Meme Snippets, 2012 by Retis from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I spoke at TechPhx on Social Media Horror Stories from the Legal Trenches. One of the stories I told was Turner Barr’s experience with having his blog, Around the World in 80 Jobs, essentially shut down because another company registered the trademark in the same name. At the end of my talk, someone asked if you could register the trademark in a hashtag.

A trademark is the words, slogans, logos, colors, packaging, etc., you put on your products that differentiate you from your competition. If you don’t register your trademark, you get the exclusive right to use your marks where you’ve established your market. When you register your trademark, you get the exclusive rights to use your marks on your type of products everywhere in the U.S. If you want to know more about trademarks, check the story behind the Burger King trademark.

Hash Tags are Like Snow Flakes by cambodia4kids.org from Flickr  (Creative Commons License)

Hash Tags are Like Snow Flakes by cambodia4kids.org from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Just like you can register a trademark in a company name, product name, or slogan, you can register a trademark in a hashtag. The first rule is your trademark can’t be the generic product. If you own a coffee shop, you can’t register the trademark #coffee. If the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) let you have that, you could stop your competition from calling their coffee “coffee,” which would be very confusing. You could register your business name (i.e., #DansCoffee) or a slogan like #GreatMornings or #WheresMyMug.

The second rule is you can’t claim a trademark that your competition is already using. If you were a soda manufacturer, you couldn’t register the trademark #Coke or #CocaCola unless you were the Coca-Cola Company.

Another thing to keep in mind is when you register your trademark, you have to declare what you’re claiming as your trademark and what goods or services you’re using it on. You only get the exclusive rights to your mark in your arena of goods. You can’t stop another company from using a similar trademark on their products as long as they are completely unrelated.

Registering a trademark allows you to prevent your competition from using your trademark or something similar to it. It doesn’t give you the ability to stop people from using your slogan in their everyday lives. For instance, the Williamstown Theatre Festival could register the trademark in the hashtag #WTF which would allow them to prevent other theatres from using the same hashtag to promote their products, services, and events, but it would allow them to stop everyone who uses it on Twitter to mean “What The Fuck.”

Registering a trademark is a long process. It can take months for the USPTO to look at your application and then there may be several rounds of communications between you and the USPTO before your trademark is approved. If you want to claim the exclusive right to use your desired hashtag, it should be for something that you’re planning on using for a long time.

So can you register a trademark in a hashtag? Yes. Should you register your hashtag as a trademark? It depends on your situation. That should probably require a joint meeting with your marketing staff and your lawyers. If you want to chat with me about this or any other topic, you can connect with meTwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
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Guerrilla Movie Shot at Disney Parks

Escape from Tomorrow - Image from EscapeFromTomorrow.com

Escape from Tomorrow – Image from EscapeFromTomorrow.com

This is one of the most innovative projects I’ve heard about this year – Escape from Tomorrow – a film that was mostly shot at Disneyland and Walt Disneyworld without Disney’s knowledge. The cast and crew blended in with other park patrons by storing their scripts and communicating via their phones, using video cameras that were the same type that regular park-goers use, and they used natural lighting. Besides the fact that the cast wore the same outfits every day and they had to go on the same rides over and over again to get the shots, no one could tell they were up to something.

Escape from Tomorrow was written and directed by Randy Moore and it premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The fact that the film was shot at Disney parks was kept under wraps until the premier and then it got a lot of attention from reviewers, many of which expected Disney to try to prevent the film from being shown during and after the festival. Disney has acknowledged that the film exists but hasn’t taken action against it yet. Escape from Tomorrow will be available in theaters starting October 11th.

I’m excited to see the film, not for the story itself, but to examine the legal arguments that Disney may have against the film.

What about Intellectual Property Infringement?
The general rule is “Don’t fuck with Disney” because they’re known for laying the smack down on anyone who uses their intellectual property without permission. Moore reportedly was diligent about removing excerpts from Disney movies and songs that were caught on film. Disney won’t likely try to claim copyright in everything it owns inside its parks and even if they did, Moore has a strong fair use argument.

Disney probably wouldn’t win on a trademark claim either, even though I’m sure Disney trademarks appear in the film. I bet Moore’s lawyers would make an argument that the film’s use of Disney is like Thomas Forsythe’s use of Barbie dolls in his work. Mattel lost the case against Forsythe because he couldn’t make the same artistic statement without using the iconic dolls. Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School also brought up the argument that no one would see this film and think that Disney was involved in it.

Shouldn’t this be a Non-Issue since Disney lets Visitors Shoot Photos and Videos in its Parks?
Of course Disney lets visitors take photos and videos inside the parks. It’s basically a form of free advertising for them. And even if they didn’t like it, they would have accepted that there’s nothing they could do to stop the hordes of people who visit every day from snapping photos or making home movies. This has become even more prolific now that everyone has a smartphone.

The issue isn’t that they were shooting video, but that they were shooting video for a commercial purpose. Disney parks are private property and they can require people to pay for a location release to use their property. I suspect their lawyers have contract templates ready and a fee structure for anyone who approaches them about shooting a movie at a park.

This gets into a gray area when people go to Disney for personal/recreational purposes, shoot videos, and then post them on YouTube. If the patron monetizes their videos and they get enough hits, they could make money off of their Disney experience. I suspect the amount in question would be too low for Disney to care, but it raises the question of how much financial success can you have via YouTube before you have to worry about legal repercussions.

What about People in the Background?
Moore and his people didn’t get releases from anyone who was caught in the background of any of his shots. He might be accused commercializing their images without their consent if he doesn’t blur them out. I wonder if there are enough pissed off people who were caught on film that they would pursue a class action against Moore.

If I heard that Moore was filming at a Disney park the same time I was there, I’d be running to the theatre to see it, hoping that I made it in the background. I suspect some people would be excited to be on it and may only ask to be listed in the credits for posterity if possible.

It’s uncharacteristic of Disney not to respond to a potential legal fight. On one hand I wonder if they’re waiting to see if the film will be a commercial success before deciding if they’re going to pursue it because there’s often no point in winning a lawsuit (besides pride) against someone who can’t pay up. Alternatively, Disney may be ignoring the film out of fear that if they respond that it will lead to more attention, and more people will see the film, and Moore will make more money.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
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