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.

Clothing Line Intellectual Property

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas 'nclm' from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas ‘nclm’ from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently I’ve had a few questions about intellectual property related to starting the clothing line or T-shirt business. These people asked me how they can protect their work. Is it trademark? Is it copyright? The answer is, it’s probably both!

A trademark is anything you put on your goods or services to differentiate them from the competition. And a business can have several trademarks. They are your company name, brand names, slogans, logos, etc. Likewise, a clothing line can have several trademarks including your company’s name, the name for each collection, slogans, and your logos. The triangle patch with the question mark on it is a trademark for Guess jeans as is the alligator logo for Lacoste brand clothing.

Before you select the trademarks you want for your clothing line, be sure to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to verify that the trademark you want has not already been claimed by another company in the apparel industry or a related industry. If a trademark has already been registered that company could stop you from entering the marketplace using a trademark that is confusingly similar to theirs. (See the story of The North Face v. The South Butt for an example.)

Your clothing line may also contain several copyrights. If you design T-shirts, you will have copyright rights in each design. You may also have copyright rights in your logo. You have rights in what you create the moment you create it; you don’t have to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain your rights (however, you do have to register if you want to sue for copyright infringement.) If your design is simply a short phrase on a shirt, it may not be copyrightable because short phrases are often not original enough to warrant having a copyright. Depending on what your phrase is, if you’re using it as a slogan, it could be a trademark.

If you outsource the creation of the designs for your clothing or the creation of your marketing materials, make sure you have clear written contracts with these independent contractors to ensure that you own whatever you have hired them to create. Otherwise you may find yourself in a situation where the artist owns the intellectual property rights in what they created, and you merely have a license to use it.

As you can see, determining what intellectual property you have may be a complicated question. It’s best to consult an intellectual property attorney to assist you in identifying your intellectual property and determine the best strategies to protect it, which may include registering your copyrights and trademarks.

If you have any questions about copyrights or trademarks, feel free to shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Top Three Legal Tips for Dad Bloggers from Dad 2.0 Summit

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

I had an awesome time at Dad 2.0 Summit – an awesome conference for dads who blog. I was invited to the conference to hang out in the Knowledge Bar during the breaks to talk with people about the legal dos and don’ts when it comes to their blogs. One gentleman asked me what three tips I’d give to the conference’s audience. Here’s what I said.

1. Be Thoughtful about what Images you Use on your Site.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think they can use any image they find online as long as they give an attribution and a link back to the original. What you’re likely doing is committing copyright infringement and telling the artist what you did. I recommend getting permission from the person to use their image or only use Creative Commons images for your site. I only use images that come with the license that lets me modify and commercialize them.  For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

2. Register your Trademarks.
This is my soapbox issue for the year for bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters – register your trademarks! If you don’t, someone else can start using it, register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and they could essentially shut down your site. You’d have to decide whether to fight them for it or rebrand. It’s easier and cheaper to protect yourself by registering your brand first. Then that way you’ve secured your rights to your name, logo, and slogan everywhere in the U.S. For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

3. When you get Free Products or Write Sponsored Posts, Disclose It.
Federal law requires you to only give true and accurate reviews when you do product reviews and you must disclose when you are compensated for giving your opinion. You have to tell your audience when you get products for free, participate in campaigns for compensation, or have sponsors. This rule applies to blogs, review sites, and anywhere you post on social media when you’re compensated for doing so. For more information about this topic, check out this post.

The laws regarding blogging and social media are still developing so it’s important that you stay abreast of changes as they occur when they apply to you. I will do my best to create content on developments in social media and internet law. If you’re looking for a resource that reviews the laws that apply to bloggers, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. You can always send me an email if you ever have questions, and please stay connected with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube.

If I don’t see you before then, I look forward to re-connecting with you at Dad 2.0 Summit next year!

Bloggers & Vloggers: Register your Trademarks!

Registered by tup wanders from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Registered by tup wanders from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Ever since I heard about the Turner Barr story in 2013, I’ve been on everyone I know – including recreational bloggers and the vloggers – to register their trademarks in at least their sites’ names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). If this isn’t on your to-do list for this year, take a break from reading this post and go add it right now.

For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, Turner Barr started an awesome blog called Around the World in 80 Jobs where he writes and creates videos about his travel adventurers and how he works from place to place. It was a simple but brilliant idea. He didn’t register his trademark. I bet the thought never crossed his mind. I bet he never thought that another company would register the trademark “Around the World in 80 Jobs” and essentially shut down his site. Thankfully, Turner was able to resolve the situation in part by publicly calling out the people he suspected stole his idea. He has since registered the trademark for his blog.

When I saw this situation where it looked like another company ripped off an individual blogger’s idea and name for themselves and basically (temporarily) stole it out from under him by registering the trademark, I became scared for every person I know who has an amazing blog or vlog. I don’t want to see them in the same predicament. It also reminded me to be a diligent about reminding and re-reminding my clients who are startup entrepreneurs about the importance or registering their trademarks so they don’t end up in the Burger King situation.

This is the type of situation potentially where someone can steal your idea and you will have to fight to try to get it back. And it’s the type of situation that is easily prevented by registering your trademark first. Once you have a registered trademark with the USPTO, you can stop other people and companies from using a name that is confusingly similar to yours in your industry.

Compared to the heartache, headaches, and what you will pay a lawyer if you end up in a situation like Turner Barr did, filing at trademark application is cheap. The USPTO recently lowered their filing fees so if you did your application yourself (which I don’t recommend) it may cost you only $275. If you’ve never filed the trademark application before, I suggest you at least consult a trademark attorney in advance just so you understand the trademark process including what information you have to give the examining attorney to prove that you’re using your trademark. It may not be as expensive as you fear.

And just to show that I put my money were my mouth is and that the shoemaker’s children have shoes in this situation, I recently submitted a trademark application myself for my personal blog, The Undeniable Ruth. I want to be able to call myself “undeniable” for the rest of my life and this is the first step to ensuring that.

If you have questions or want to talk about your trademark needs, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, or you can send me an email.

Check the USPTO Database Before You Brand

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by "Caveman Chuck" Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by “Caveman Chuck” Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I asked my friends who work in marketing, who create campaigns and brands for a living, whether they check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database before finalizing a project for a client. I was surprised when all of them said, “No.”  To me, this would be an obvious step in the brainstorming or idea development process.

Let’s go over a little bit about trademarks. A trademark is the name, slogan, logo, etc. you put on your company or products to differentiate them from your competition. A trademark has two components – the mark itself and your product or service. That’s why it’s permissible for two unrelated companies to have similar names – like Delta Faucets and Delta Airlines. You can’t put a trademark on your company or product that is so similar to your competition that consumers are going to be confused about what they’re buying.

If you create a brand but don’t register it with the USPTO, you only get common law protection for it which extends only as far as your geographic market. You also risk being in the Burger King situation where you could be limited in your ability to expand if someone registers your trademark after you’ve started using it.

When a company registers their trademark, they get the exclusive right to use their mark on their category of goods and services everywhere in the United States. No one can enter the marketplace with a confusingly similar name on similar products or services, even if they do it in a geographic area where the trademark owner isn’t doing business. They can send you a letter demanding that you rebrand or sue you for infringement. This happened to a friend of mine who had a dog training business that had a similar name to a dog trainer who lived across the country. Since the other guy registered his trademark for dog training, he had the authority to make my friend change her business’ name.

The USPTO trademark database isn’t that hard to use if you’re only looking up words. When you are researching potential names and slogans, make sure you look up various spellings of the word(s) and watch out for the word you want in other languages. It’s a good idea to verify with a trademark that the name or slogan you want as your trademark is available. You don’t want to invest a lot of time, money, and energy in creating a brand that you can’t have. I’ve worked with too many companies who have had to rebrand their company or a product because they got a cease and desist letter from someone who had registered the name.

I also made a video about the importance of checking the USPTO database when selecting a brand.

I’m also a huge advocate of registering the trademark in your blog because if someone else takes your name, it can essentially shut down your site. If you want to chat more about trademarks, 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.

How To Trademark Your Own Name

0688 Pittsburgh - Senator John Heinz History Center by Klaus Nahr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

0688 Pittsburgh – Senator John Heinz History Center by Klaus Nahr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently a friend posted on my Facebook page, “I’m considering trademarking my name. Can I do that?”

Yes you can, but it’s a little complicated. Let’s start with some trademark basics.

There are five ways to describe a potential trademark: fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive or generic. Fanciful, arbitrary, and suggestive marks can be registered on what’s called the primary registry of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as soon as you’re using them in commerce. When yo have a registered trademark, no one can enter the market in your industry and use your trademark or something confusingly similar to it. Generic marks can never be registered. Descriptive marks fall in between these two groups.

Descriptive trademarks describe the product they’re attached to. If you have a descriptive mark, you can put on the USPTO’s secondary registry when you start using it in commerce, but you can’t bump it to the primary registry until have “acquired distinctiveness,” which typically happens after five years of continuous use.

When you name your business after yourself – i.e., John Smith Graphic Design (and your name is John Smith), you have a descriptive trademark. If you’ve only been in business for a short time, the USPTO doesn’t want to give you the exclusive rights to your name in your industry – thus all the other John Smiths who are graphic designers couldn’t call their companies, “John Smith Graphic Design” or something similar to it. They make you wait until you’ve been in business for five years before giving you nationwide exclusivity over your company name in your industry.

So can my friend register a trademark for her name? Probably, but I’d have to take a closer look at her situation to determine how long she’s been using it as a trademark and whether someone else has already registered the same name in the same industry.

If you have any questions about whether you can register your desired trademark, feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, or send me an email. You can also subscribe to the firm’s monthly newsletter. If you want more information about Carter Law Firm, please visit the homepage.

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.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How To Trademark a Business Name

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Last week a friend asked me if a business could trademark their name. Anyone who’s spent much time with me knows that the answer to every legal question is “It depends.” In this case it depends on whether your business name is trademarkable and if anyone else had claimed the same or a similar name for your category of goods or services.

When you start a business, check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to see if anyone has registered the name you want to use (or a similar one) for selling the same goods and services as you. If someone’s already using the name you want, you will likely be infringing on their trademark rights if you use the name on your products. They could force you to change your name and rebrand if you use the name that someone’s already registered. If you were using the business name on your products and someone registers the name before you, you’ll be in the Burger King situation where you can keep using your name, but only in your established market.

Once you establish that your desired name hasn’t been registered by someone else, you have to look at whether the name you want is trademarkable. Not every business or product name can be a registered trademark. Here are the five types of trademarks.

1. Fanciful Marks: Fanciful marks are words that didn’t exist before you stuck it on your products. Examples include Exxon and Kodak. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

2. Arbitrary Marks: Arbitrary marks are words in real life, but they are stuck on a product that has no connection to the word. For example, the mark “Apple” for computers, cell phones, and digital music players is an arbitrary mark. The fruit has nothing to do with digital machines and gadgets. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

3. Suggestive Marks: Suggestive marks are marks where if you think about it, you can make a connection between the mark and the product. “Playboy” as a mark for a men’s magazine is a suggestive mark. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry. It’s sometimes hard to discern the difference between suggestive and descriptive marks.

4. Descriptive Marks: Descriptive marks merely describe the product. This includes businesses where the owner names the business after themselves. These marks can be registered on the USPTO main registry after they’ve established “acquired distinctiveness,” which usually means you’ve been using the mark for five years.

5. Generic Marks: Generic marks are the name of the products themselves. It would be if you had an apple orchard and wanted to sell your apples using the mark “Apples.” If the USPTO let you register that mark, no other apple farmers could call their apples “apples” without infringing on your trademark rights. Generic marks can never be registered with the USPTO.

This video may help. You can watch it below or see it here.

If you want to know if your business name can be your trademark and the risks and rewards surrounding registering your mark, contact a trademark attorney in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, 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.

DMCA Abuse

Copyright license choice by opensourceway from Flickr

Copyright license choice by opensourceway from Flickr

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is part of the copyright law. Its purpose is to protect people who provide online forums but don’t control the content people post to them – like YouTube and Pinterest. If they receive a notice that material on their site is allegedly copyright infringement, they must remove it. This law gives content creators a way to react to copyright infringement when someone posts their work online without permission. Instead of sending a cease and desist letter to the person who stole their work, they bypass them and deal with the infringer’s webhost instead.

Lately, I’ve seen a few instances where people have been improperly using the DMCA to get material removed from the internet that they don’t like. I’m starting to refer to these acts as DMCA abuse.

1. Using the DMCA to address TM Infringement
The DMCA should only be used for copyright issues – when you suspect someone is using your original content without your permission. Don’t use it to removed suspected instances of trademark infringement.

In a recent incident, GoPro allegedly sent a DMCA takedown notice to DigitalRev’s webhost to remove a picture of its camera from the site. The photo was in article that compared GoPro against another camera. GoPro didn’t think DigitalRev copied their content, but that they were using a picture of the camera that had the wrong branding. GoPro should have sent DigitalRev an email with a correct image of the camera instead of getting the whole article pulled for alleged copyright infringement.

2. Using the DMCA to Eliminate the Original
This story really bothered me. Somebody copied someone’s original content onto their site, and then used the DMCA to claim that they were the real owners and get the original removed for its site. Thankfully the original author could get their work put back on their site by sending a DMCA counter takedown notice.

Apparently this is a common incident. This behavior was so disturbing, I had to make a video about it.

If you think you have questions about how you, your brand, or your content is being used online, please consult an intellectual property attorney. Don’t just send a DMCA takedown notice – that may not be the right tool to address your problem. When you send a DMCA takedown notice, you attest under the penalty of perjury, that your statements are true. If you send a DMCA takedown notice and it turns out what you did qualifies as what I call DMCA abuse, you may have committed a crime.

For more information about copyright, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Can Kasperski keep the FnB Name?

Old Scottsdale Sign by kmaschke from Flickr

Whenever I ask my friends where I should take my quasi-foodie parents when they visit, one of the most common answers I get is FnB. This little restaurant in Scottsdale has won a bunch of awards and gotten a lot of good press since it opened three years ago, including a mention in Food & Wine magazine. The owners Charleen Badman and Pavle Milic recently announced that they’re moving FnB to a new location at the beginning of 2013. Shortly after that, FnB’s soon-to-be former landlord, Peter Kasperski, announced he wanted to keep the name “FnB.”

According to Phoenix New Times, he came up with the name and he likes it, but does that give him ownership rights in the name?

Probably not.

A trademark is the mark used with a product or service that distinguishes it from its competition and informs consumers about the source and quality of what they’re buying. In regards to a restaurant, a mark could be the name, the way the restaurant is decorated (trade dress), logos, and/or slogans. When you have a trademark, you have the exclusive right to use it on your products or services in your established market. If your register your company’s trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, you get the exclusive right to use your mark on your products and services nationwide. No one can start a business or create a similar product with a mark that is similar to yours.

Unfortunately, no one has registered “FnB” with the USPTO for use with a restaurant. If Badman and Milic did that, they would have exclusive control over who could open an FnB restaurant anywhere in the U.S.

All is not lost in this story. If Badman and Milic can argue that they are known nationwide, they can make the argument that their established market is the entire country so no one can call their restaurant “FnB” without their consent. There was a case in 1948 about a fancy New York restaurant called “The Stork Club.” They had spent thousands of dollars in nationwide advertising and had been featured in news articles in newspapers throughout the country. They were able to force a small tavern in San Francisco called “Stork Club” to change its name because they made the argument that consumers might think the tavern was affiliated with the restaurant, which could hurt the restaurant’s reputation.

What about Kasperski’s statement that he thought of the name? Trademark rights come from using the mark in commerce. From what I can tell, he’s leased property to a company that used the name. If he didn’t use it himself, he has no trademark rights in the name.

According to Phoenix New Times, Kasperski claims he’s partners with Badman and Milic. I looked up Badman and Milic’s LLC and he’s not listed as an owner, so I’ve seen no evidence that supports that claim.

Kasperski also said Badman and Milic will be successful without the FnB name. Given their success so far, that is probably true; however, that doesn’t change their rights in their business’ name. They were the ones who used the name in their business and build a stellar reputation. Unless there are contracts that explicit give Kasperski rights in the FnB name, I foresee him struggling to make a valid claim in the trademark rights.

The take away lesson: If you want to avoid problems like this, talk with an intellectual property attorney about registering your trademark with the USPTO.

You can connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.