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.

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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.

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Creepy New Facebook Terms of Service Coming

Facebook Flower by mkhmarketing from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Facebook Flower by mkhmarketing from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When I got the notice that Facebook was updating its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and its Data Use Policy, I didn’t think much of it. If you want to use their service, you’re stuck with their terms of service. I just made a mental note to verify that my privacy changes hadn’t changed when they roll out the new policies go into effect. But then a friend told me about some of the changes that made me take a closer look.

Facebook says, “Your privacy is very important to us.” That doesn’t mean they care about keeping your information private. That just means they’re telling you how they’re using it.

Facebook previous terms of service put us on notice that they treat your name and profile picture like public information and they basically track all of your activities on the Facebook site and mobile app – this includes when others’ tag you in a photo, status update, at a location, or if someone adds you to a group.  And don’t think about creating a profile with fake information because that’s against the rules too. When you post a photo on Facebook, you give them a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use” it however they want. If you delete a photo, the license ends, unless it’s been shared with others and they haven’t deleted it.

Facebook: The privacy saga continues by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Facebook: The privacy saga continues by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Now here’s something interesting, the old rules state you can’t tag anyone on Facebook without their consent. When’s the last time your friend asked for your permission to tag you? Facebook says tell your friends if you’re ok with them tagging you and if they refuse to respect your desire not to be tagged, then block them. (Blocking = no tagging for you)

So what’s going to be changing with Facebook? Well, they’re going to add a facial recognition program that will scan people’s photos and suggest friends to tag by comparing the photos to others’ profile pictures and other photos where you’ve been tagged. Does that sound a little Big Brother to anyone else?

I’m guessing this change is going to piss off a lot of people who know about it. I get hits on the law firm’s website every day from people who want to know if and how others can post pictures of them online or whether they can post pictures of others online. Every day.

I wonder how many people are going to change their profile picture to a photo of their pet and disallow all other tagging to avoid Facebook suggesting friends tag them when others post pictures of them. I bet more people will talk about this idea more than will actually do it.

And I don’t think this is a change but more of a clarification. The new rules say, “[Y]ou permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you.”  It’s their site and their rules, and they probably don’t care if you don’t like it.

If you don’t like these changes, you can bitch about it but accept it or delete your account. Unlike deactivating your account, this completely removes it from Facebook.

If you want more information about the legalities of social media, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need information or advice about a situation involving your Facebook, please contact a social media attorney in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
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Reddit’s New Privacy Policy – How Terms of Service Should Be Written

Startup Schwag Bag #2 by homard.net

Startup Schwag Bag #2 by homard.net from Flickr

Are you on Reddit? I love Reddit. It’s a great way to connect with the various online communities that matter to you.

Reddit recently announced that its new privacy policy is going into effect on May 15th. You can read the text of the policy here. Seriously, go read it.

What I love about this policy is how simply it is written. It’s straightforward, well organized, and written in English – not legalese. It’s a policy that Joe Average people can read and understand how the site will use their information. I appreciate that Reddit even said that they want their users to read and understand their policies.

Reddit’s approach should be the standard way that lawyers write a company’s terms of service for their clients’ websites. They should be simple, direct, and be organized in a way that it’s easy for users to understand the site’s rules. They don’t need to be excessively long or use words that no one uses in real life.

A website’s terms of service is a contract between the site’s owners and its users. If you disagree with a site’s terms, don’t use the site. It’s important when you join a website where you will be interacting wth others or posting content that you understand your dos and don’ts as well as what the site can do with your information and anything you post.

Some people think it’s ok to simply take another website’s terms of service, change the name of the company to their own, and slap it on their website. This is asking for trouble, especially if you don’t understand the terms that you’re copying. You may be creating rules for your users that you don’t want in place. Reading other website’s terms of service is a good place to get ideas if you want to try to draft your own, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for making sure your terms of service reflect your individual or company’s needs. You never know who draft the terms you’re copying.

I love drafting custom website terms of service. I get to combine my client’s needs with what the law allows and come up with a document (in English) that will work for them. I know it sounds boring to some people, but to me it’s like a big puzzle that I get to figure out.

If you operate a website where users get to post content or interact with each other, please make sure you have a solid set of terms of service that fits your needs. If you can’t afford to hire an attorney to draft your terms of service from scratch, at least have one to review your terms of service or pay for a consultation to discuss what your provisions should be in your terms of service.

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Should Star Wars Fans Fear Disney Cease & Desist Letters?

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm - The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm – The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

May 4th is Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you! In light of this geeky holiday and the fact that I will be speaking about the legalities of fan fiction and fan art at Phoenix Comicon this year, I’ve been thinking about what the impact of the Disney buying Lucasfilm in 2012 will have on Star Wars fans.

George Lucas was known for encouraging fans to create fan art and fan fiction. This is an expression of love for Star Wars and gives fans a chance to connect in new ways. In contrast, Disney is known for sending cease and desist letters when they find that a day care or school shows Disney films or if a child-centered business has a mural of Disney characters painted on the wall.

I tell my fellow geeks who want to create fan art or fan fiction to do their research on whose work they want to emulate to see if the copyright holder will be likely to come after them if they discover what they’ve created. I haven’t heard of any Star Wars fans receiving a cease and desist letter from Disney since they’ve acquired Lucasfilm. I’ve sent a message to Disney corporate office asking about their official policy regarding Star Wars fan art and fan fiction.

If you get a cease and desist letter from Disney for your Star Wars fan fiction or fan art, you could try to make an argument that you’re not committing copyright infringement because what you created is protected by the concept of fair use. This is part of the Copyright Act that permits people to add original and transformative content to existing works. This law protects things like parodies.

Never forget that fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. To make a valid fair use argument, the copyright holder will sue you for infringement and then you’ll have to demonstrate to the court that your work qualifies as fair use. The court will consider four main factors:

  1. Purpose and character of your use of another’s work (Are you transforming the original?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work you’re copying
  3. Amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used
  4. Effect on the market (Is your work a substitute for the original?)

This is somewhat a dangerous quest to take on. The general rule is “Disney never loses” when it comes to legal battles. I know of only person who fought Disney and won in a copyright situation.

If you create fan art or fan fiction or are considering creating original work based on an existing work and need to understand the legal risks that accompany your work, please contact a copyright attorney in your community. You can also check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed for my thoughts on fair use.

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Maintaining Privacy with an Online Alter Ego

Paper Bag (#95734) by Mark Sebastian from Flickr

Paper Bag (#95734) by Mark Sebastian from Flickr

I just got back from the interactive track of South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin – the most amazing conference for all things related to social media. I attended as many sessions as I could but there were dozens of other talks I wish I could have attended. I came back to Phoenix buzzing with ideas.

I attended an interesting session by author/journalist Pernille Tranberg from Copenhagen. She co-authored the book Fake It! Your Guide to Digital Self-Defense.  She uses her real name on LinkedIn and Twitter, but she uses fake names on Facebook and for filling out forms online. She has two complete alter egos. Her friends know her fake name on Facebook but she generally doesn’t share that information with others.

In a world that pushes of online transparency, her ideas run in the opposite direction. This is a great tactic for people to use who don’t want everyone looking them up or if they want to have a private online life that is completely separate from their professional life. Having a fake persona makes it less likely that your boss or prospective boss will be able to find you on Facebook or anywhere else you use your fake name. Additionally, if your fake identity is ever stolen it won’t be devastating for you because there are no assets connected to your alter ego.

If you’re interested in creating an alter ego for yourself, check out Fake Name Generator. It will give you a name, address, email address, username, password, profession, and even information like height, weight, blood type, and mother’s maiden name.

Now, does using a fake name violate the terms of service of social media sites that require you to use your real name or have a policy against one person having multiple accounts? Yes. But if no one reports you, how will they ever know?

I also attended a session on Bullying: Social Media as Problem and Solution which featured Marta Gossage, community manager for Reddit. She spoke about how people are encouraged to use pseudonyms on Reddit and by doing so it allows people to share and connect with people in a way that they don’t feel comfortable doing in real life. She said it also reduces the amount of harassment because most people don’t know each other in real life and participants on the site are good at enforcing the ideal that they can attack an idea but not the person.

Marta encourages people to use fake names because it’s easier to share without fear of judgment when no one knows who you are and because it’s easier to delete a fake identity than a real one from the internet. This is particularly true for young people who don’t think before they post and may regret the things they post which might affect their ability to get jobs or accepted into college.

I have a friend who maintained two Facebook profiles during law school – one was under her real name that was mostly a placeholder in case a professional contact tried to look her up. The other was under her fake name where she was free to be herself. Knowing what I know about her career plans, it made sense for her to separate her social life from her professional one. (Don’t worry – she doesn’t do anything bad. She’s just a bit of a free spirit in a conservative industry where some might look down on her boisterousness.)

If you want to create a fake persona online, remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Be careful to only share your fake identity with people who will keep it private.

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Jonathan Coulton v. Glee – Legal Rip Off or Copyright Infringement?

Jonathan Coulton by Dan Coulter from Flickr

Jonathan Coulton by Dan Coulter from Flickr

I’ve been reading up on the Jonathan Coulton/Glee controversy over Coulton’s arrangement of “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot and all I can think is “What the fuck, Glee?!?”

Sir Mix-a-Lot is the artist behind the original “Baby Got Back.” When indie singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton wanted to record a cover of it, he did the ethical and legal thing and purchased a license to use the song. Whenever he sells a copy of his version, Sir Mix-a-Lot gets a royalty payment.

The TV show Glee is about a high school glee club that does covers of popular songs. When they wanted to do a version of “Baby Got Back,” they got permission from Sir Mix-a-Lot to do it, but according to Coulton and his fans, they blatantly ripped off his arrangement without any attribution. It was likely completely legal for Glee to do this, but it was an asshat thing to do.

Here’s how copyright works when it comes to music. When a musician writes a song (think sheet music), he gets the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivative works from it. Covers are derivative works, which is why Coulton needed a license to do his own arrangement of the song. He used the same lyrics with a few modifications, but the accompanying music is totally different.

When the musician makes a sound recording of their song (think mp3, CD, etc.), he gets a separate copyright in that. In this case, Coulton may not have a copyright in the arrangement he wrote for “Baby Got Back,” but he does have a copyright in his sound recording of his arrangement of the song.

When “Baby Got Back” aired on Glee, Jonathan Coulton and his fans recognized it as his arrangement instantly, and they rightfully asked, “What the fuck?” No one informed Coulton that they’d be using his arrangement and they didn’t give him credit for it on the show. The show reportedly responded that he should be happy for the free exposure. What exposure did they give him since they didn’t give him the attribution for his work?!

Some people are now questioning whether Glee used some of Coulton’s sound recording on the show. Coulton may not have legal recourse for them using his arrangement of the song, but he would if they used his recording instead of recreating it themselves. We’ll see where the chips fall on this one.

In the meantime, Coulton is doing something totally awesome in response to this situation. He released his version of “Baby Got Back” (in the style of Glee) and he’s donating the profits to The VH1 Save the Music Foundation and The It Gets Better Project. Go buy it! (I did!)

So what’s the lesson from this: Always give an attribution when you use another artist’s work, even if you’re not legally obligated to do it.

You can read more about this story on CNN, Wired, and Forbes. Apparently other artists are also coming forward and saying that Glee did the same thing to their arrangements as they allegedly did to Coulton.

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Simple Contracts with Foamy the Squirrel

Merry Christmas from our Ninja family to yours! by thotfulspot from Flickr

Merry Christmas from our Ninja family to yours! by thotfulspot from Flickr

If you want to create a contract, the minimum you need are three things.

  1. An Offer
  2. Acceptance of the Offer
  3. Consideration

Consideration is a legal term for a “bargained-for exchange,” which is a give-and-take between the parties. And it has to be an exchange that is reasonable. You probably have consideration if you want to sell your car for the Kelley Blue Book value vs selling it for 2 cents.

Check out this Foamy cartoon that appears to create a contract (I heart Foamy):

Here’s the contract offer I heard: Germaine will get Foamy a ninja for Christmas in exchange for shutting up about his disappointment over the ninja gig. And Foamy accepted with the caveats that the Ninja not be American unless it’s Chuck Norris and the penalty for not delivering a ninja would be that thugs get to rape Germaine with her own severed limbs.

Was there consideration? That’s up for debate. Foamy can be pretty awesomely obnoxious. I can see someone offering a higher ticket item to make him shut up. The big problem I see if you can’t make a contract for something that is illegal. Owning a person is illegal which could be one interpretation of the contract’s terms. Foamy’s caveat about the severed limbs obviously doesn’t hold water.

Check how the contract was executed:

It sounds like Germaine was blackmailed into giving Foamy a ninja, which arguably makes this whole exchange invalid since she was afraid for her life and not acting to get the bargained for exchange. Setting that aside, I can see consideration in exchanging a toy for getting someone to shut up. Foamy could argue that both parties knew that he was bargaining for a real, breathing, human ninja, but that would make the contract invalid since owning a person is illegal. In the end, I think Foamy should take his plush ninja and be happy he got a present.

Happy Ninja Christmas Everyone!

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The Oatmeal Sued Again – This Time for Trademark Infringement

One of the Greeting Cards available on TheOatmeal.com

I suspect he has a harder fight on his hands this time around.

Ars Technica released a story this week that The Oatmeal (aka Matt Inman) is going back to court, courtesy of Oatmeal Studios. Oatmeal Studios is a greeting card company that’s suing the artist for trademark infringement because he’s selling greeting cards on The Oatmeal website.

Matt became more infamous than ever with his legal issues related to FunnyJunk earlier this year. I think that was a pretty easy fight for him to win, but this time he has a more formidable opposition.

According to the USPTO, Oatmeal Studios has been selling greeting cards under this brand since 1978 – that means they’ve been selling cards since before Matt was born. In 2004, the company registered the trademark “Oatmeal Studios” for use on “greeting cards, gift cards, occasion cards, paper party decorations, writing pads, note pads, and memo pads.” That means no one can start using “Oatmeal Studios” as a trademark on these or similar products anywhere in the United States after the mark was registered.

Matt has had his site since at least 2009 according to the WhoIs records. He started drawing comics and now he also sells greetings cards, prints, mugs, t-shirts, stickers and posters on his site.

I suspect Oatmeal Studios thinks “The Oatmeal” is too similar to “Oatmeal Studios” so they want to shut down at least the greeting card arm of his operation. Since they have the federally registered trademark, they might succeed, but I think there’s a strong argument that the marks are different enough and the products are different enough that Matt could be allowed to sell his cards because no consumer would ever confuse the two products.

Let’s take a brief look at the factors the court looks at when deciding the likelihood of confusion.

  1. Strength of the Plaintiff’s Mark: “Oatmeal Studios” for a greeting card company sounds like an arbitrary mark to me, which is a pretty strong mark. This makes it more likely that consumers will be confused about the difference between “Oatmeal Studios” and “The Oatmeal.”
  2. Degree of Similarity between the Marks: The marks are pretty similar. One has an added “the” and the other has “studios.” I think the fact that Matt doesn’t have “studios” or something along those lines as part of his name helps him. “Oatmeal” describes the company on one side but “Oatmeal” describes him as a person on the other.
  3. Proximity of Products: Matt sells his cards on his site. Oatmeal Studio’s cards look like the cards I see in Walgreens and stationary stores. The fact they’re not sold in the same places helps Matt’s case.
  4. Likelihood that the Plaintiff will Bridge the Gap: These companies both sell greeting cards, but I doubt Oatmeal Studios will be selling signed prints, posters, mugs, t-shirts, or stickers anytime soon.
  5. Evidence of Actual Confusion: Has anyone been confused about the differences between Oatmeal Studios and The Oatmeal? I doubt it.
  6. Defendant’s Good Faith in Adopting the Mark: If memory serves, Matt’s alter ego The Oatmeal came from his activities in the gaming world. It had nothing to do with Oatmeal Studios. I suspect when he started his site to share his comics that he wasn’t thinking of creating a line of greeting cards.
  7. Quality of the Defendant’s Product: Go check out Oatmeal Studios’ website. I see no similarities between these cards and The Oatmeal’s greeting cards except that they’re both on paper. I think they’re of equal quality as paper products, but when you look at the quality and characteristics of the artwork, they’re not similar at all.
  8. Sophistication of the Buyer: People who buy The Oatmeal products specifically seek out Matt’s work. They will not even thing for a second that Oatmeal Studios is his work.

I think there’s a good chance that Matt can argue that there is no likelihood of consumer confusion when it comes to these two brands. The names may be similar, but I think the products are different enough that Matt has a good shot at winning. I hope this case also inspires Matt to register his trademark for his products to avoid similar problems in the future.

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