Let’s Talk About Trademarks

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“Lemonade, anyone?” by trippinlarry from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m going to say “no” a lot today. I’ve seen many trademark questions lately, many of which make me cringe.

Here’s what you need to know about trademarks. They are synonymous with branding. Your trademarks are the names, logos, slogans, etc. that you put on your products or services that differentiate you from the competition. They inform consumers about the origin and quality of the product or service.

When you apply to register a trademark, you have to tell the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) what you’re claiming as a trademark and on what products or services you’re using it. The USPTO won’t register your trademark if it’s too similar to a previously registered trademark. If they have a problem with your application, they’ll send you an Office Action with an explanation of the problem, and they give you 6 months to submit a response.

This is also why it’s possible for two companies to use the same trademark when they’re products and services are so different that no one would think they came from the same company, like Delta Airlines, Delta Faucet, and Delta Dental.

Onto the questions . . .

How would an Unregistered Trademark be Better for “Brand Image” than a Registered Trademark?

 A trademark is a trademark regardless of whether you register it or not. What changes is the rights you get with your brand when it’s a registered trademark. Having a registered trademark gives you the ability to stop competitors from entering the marketplace in the U.S. while using a trademark that is confusingly similar to yours. (Trademark rights are limited by country. If you have a registered trademark in the U.S., that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t register the same trademark for the same goods somewhere else.)

When you don’t register your trademark, you only can get common law trademark rights based on the geographic area where you are using the mark in commerce. You won’t have the ability to stop a competitor from using the same or a confusingly similar trademark in another geographic area in the U.S. like you’d be able to do if you had a registered trademark.

Additionally, if you don’t register your mark, there’s a risk that your competitor will, which will limit your ability to use your trademark to the area established by your common law rights when the other mark was registered. This happened to the first Burger King restaurant. The first Burger King was “frozen” in its established area when the franchise registered the trademark. If the first Burger King company wanted to expand beyond that area, it must do so with a different trademark than “Burger King.”

If your company is going to license its trademark to others, having a registered trademark is more valuable that an unregistered trademark. For many companies, their most important asset is their intellectual property.

If I Want to Apply to Register a Trademark and There’s a Competitor That’s Already Registered a Similar Name, Will I have a Better Chance with the USPTO if I Apply to Register my Logo that Contains the Company Name?

Why do you want to a brand that’s similar to your competition? It baffles me when companies knowingly pick a name that’s like one that’s already in use. It makes wonder if the owners are trying to ride a competitors’ coattails (which is illegal) or if they don’t understand how branding works.

The purpose of having a trademark is to prevent consumer confusion. The USPTO does not want to grant companies the similar trademarks if they’re selling similar products or services.

For a lot of companies, I recommend filing the word mark for just their name (assuming it’s trademarkable) as well as the logo, because logos often change over time. The name of the product or company usually doesn’t.

The USPTO requires separate applications for the logo and the word mark if you want both as registered trademarks. When a logo contains words, those often are given more weight than the rest of the logo in terms of whether there’s confusion because that’s often the most prominent part of the logo. The logo components may help differentiate your trademark from the competition, but it may not be enough. You can always apply and see what happens.

Can I use a Cancelled Trademark if the Owner is still Manufacturing the Product?

When you do a search on the USPTO trademark database, it will show the trademarks that are “live” and “dead.” A dead trademark may be “abandoned” or “cancelled.” An abandoned trademark was one that was applied-for but never registered. A cancelled trademark was registered at one time but not anymore.

When a company has a cancelled trademark but is still using it, it likely means that they registered the trademark and did not file the renewal when it was due. The company still has common law trademark rights based on its geographic market.

It may be possible to use a cancelled mark that’s still in use as long as you’re not in the competitor’s established geographic market, but I usually don’t recommend it. It sounds like a situation where you’d be setting yourself up to get a cease and desist letter and/or sued for common law trademark infringement and unfair competition.

On the flip side, I have seen companies use trademarks that have been cancelled and the previous owner has long since stopped using the trademark or the previous owner went out of business. A few years ago, I saw popsicle companies doing this – claiming abandoned trademarks and bringing the product back to market.

Is it OK if my Trademark is Barely Different than Someone Else’s – Like Adding or Removing a Space or Adding a Word?

The key to whether your trademark is different enough is based on whether consumers will be confused. As such, the USPTO treats trademarks that look and sound the same as being the same. You can’t take a registered mark and change the spelling slightly and have a valid trademark for the same product or service.

When you take someone’s trademark and add a word to it, the USPTO will consider how similar the marks are. If the main part of the mark matches an existing registered mark for the same type of product or service, it’s less likely that the USPTO will register your trademark as well.

There is no equation or formula you can use to guarantee that your trademark application will be approved by the USPTO.

Can I File my Own Trademark Application?

Yes. You don’t have to be a lawyer to submit a trademark application to the USPTO, though I recommend using one. At the very least, it’s best to have a lawyer review the application before you submit it. I’ve run into too many people who submitted a trademark application by themselves for trademarks that aren’t registerable. They could have saved themselves time and money by consulting a lawyer.

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How to Write a Decent Trademark Cease and Desist Letter

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Stop by tangi_bertin from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend recently forwarded me a trademark cease and desist letter he received and asked if it was anything they needed to worry about. Now, I always tell my clients to take such letters seriously, and give them their due consideration, but then I read this particular letter. It was possibly the worst cease and desist letter I’ve ever read. It was written by an entrepreneur, not a lawyer, so I automatically mentally cut the sender some slack, but still, it was bad.

If you’re in a situation where you suspected a competitor is violating your trademark rights, please get your lawyer involved. And if you’re going to write your own cease and desist letter, make it a decent one.

Make Sure Your Trademark has Likely been Infringed

A trademark has two components. It’s the name, logo, slogan, etc. that you’re claiming as a trademark plus the product or service on which you’re using it. (It’s possible for two completely different companies to have the same trademark, like Delta Dental and Delta Airlines.) For many companies, the first trademark they register is just the word or phrase that is the name of your company or product/service. This is called a “word mark.” It’s just words, no images, graphics, or sounds.

When you have a registered word mark and someone uses the same word or phrase, it’s not automatically a violation of your trademark rights. For example, Paris Hilton has registered trademarks for “That’s Hot” for “multimedia entertainment services” and apparel. These trademarks do not give her the ability to stop everyone from ever using the phrase “that’s hot,” as a descriptor. If a person is not using the word or phrase you registered as a trademark for their business, it’s likely not trademark infringement.

What to include in a Cease and Desist Letter

While I don’t endorse the idea of business owners writing their own cease and desist letters, it happens. If you’re going to write your own, these are some of the things I’d tell my client to include in their letter if they insisted on doing it themselves:

  • Provide the legal name of the person or company that owns the trademark,
  • Identify your trademark including the registration number and a screenshot of the trademark listing from the USPTO database,
  • Identify the alleged infringing activity, preferably with a URL and/or screenshot if it’s online or photographs if it is not, and
  • Clearly state what you want the recipient to do in response to your letter with a due date for compliance.

When to get the Lawyers Involved

If you encounter suspected trademark infringement, call your lawyer. Even if you want to send a cease and desist letter yourself, call your lawyer first. They can help you make sure there’s a real trademark issue that requires your attention and help you craft the cease and desist letter.

Many of my clients want to reach out to the alleged infringer to speak business owner to business owner, first. They want to send friendly but clear cease and desist letter, and give the other side a chance to resolve the matter “without having to get the lawyers involved.” I have helped write many a letter that included that phrase. The other side doesn’t need to know that I’m already involved.

If they don’t respond favorably to my client’s friendly letter, then I will follow it up with a strongly worded nastygram that demands that they cease all uses of my client’s intellectual property and failure to do so will result in litigation (or whatever consequences my client has selected).

My recommendation for clients is to refrain from making threats in cease and desist letters unless they’re willing to follow through with it. Otherwise, if the other side calls your bluff and you don’t follow through, you will lose all credibility and any further demand letters will likely be ignored.

If you threaten litigation in your cease and desist letter, be ready to pull the trigger if the suspected infringer doesn’t comply with your demands. Some people won’t take you seriously until a lawsuit has been filed. A lawsuit will force them to deal with the situation because of the court-imposed due dates or risk the effects of a default judgment if they ignore it.

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How to Legally Use User-Generated Content

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Selfie by dr_zoidberg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s a question I get from companies and their marketers: What are the legal dos and don’ts for using user-generated content? These are situations where a company wants to use a photo, video, or text created by one of their fans, usually from a site like Instagram, Facebook, or Trip Advisor. Many companies merely want to approach the person through the platform where they found the content they want to use and ask for permission to use it. While this strategy is convenient, it may not be in the company’s best interest.

Using Content Within a Platform

It’s easiest when a company wants to share someone’s post within the social media platform – e.g., sharing someone’s Instagram photo on the company’s Instagram. Many social media sites build this option into the platform where you don’t even have to ask for permission to share someone’s post on another’s account.  

Of course, I’m a risk-adverse lawyer so I tell my clients to review the terms of service first to see what happens just in case it turns out the person who created the post you shared didn’t have the right to do so and now you have to deal with the fallout. Depending on the circumstances, I might contact the person to ask the person if they took the photo (which would indicate if they’re likely the copyright holder), try to verify that the original poster is complying with the platform’s rules

Using Content Across Different Platforms

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. These are the situations where you want to take content from someone’s post on one platform and share it on a different social media site, your website, or another third-party platform. For this situation, I recommend you have a contract drafted by a lawyer. You could have them create a template for you if curating user-generated content is part of your marketing plan.

If I were creating a contract template for obtaining permission to use content created by a user or fan, I’d likely include terms such as:

  • The user owns the IP in the content: either they created it or they have permission to use it
  • The user has authority to grant the company permission to use the content
  • The user grants the company a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sublicensable, paid-in-full, royalty-free license to the company to use the content for any purpose without needing the person’s consent or credit, including the creation of derivative works (or in the alternative, that the user grants the company a copyright assignment)
  • The user will reimburse the company’s legal fees and damages if it is accused of wrongdoing because the company used the user’s content

Such a contract would also include boilerplate verbiage, like a dispute resolution provision that states how the company and user will resolve disputes if one occurs.

Always Apply Reality

In any potential legal situation, be sure to apply reality. If a company wants to use a photo with two people in it, whoever posted the image may not be able to speak on behalf of the other person in the photo, and you may need release from identifiable people to avoid being accused of violating their right of publicity.

Additionally, it will likely take longer to get permission if you want to use images and other content across platforms. Be sure to build that into your timeline if your marketing plan involves using user-generated content.

There are also those who may question whether it’s worthwhile to have a lawyer create a contract for these circumstances. When there are no issues, a contract may seem superfluous; however, contracts are imperative in situations where there is a dispute and/or the parties forget the terms of their agreement. When you work with your lawyer to create you contract, make sure it has provisions that will apply to situations that are likely to occur as well as the worst-case scenarios.

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Side Hustle Contracts

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Do the Hustle! by Joybot from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Note: The links for Chris Guillebeau’s books are affiliate links.

I admire people like Chris Guillebeau who run with ideas and make stuff happen. He’s written a number of books, including The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future. The most recent book of his that I wrote was Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days where he walks you through, day-by-day what you should do to launch a side hustle business. It’s a good book, but Chris and I disagree about how to approach contracts.

Day 14: Contract

Chris calls Day 14 “Set Up a Way to Get Paid.” This chapter covers selecting a payment system, creating invoices, and using simple contracts. For your contract, he says you only need to specify what you’ll do, how much you’ll get paid, when you’ll get paid, and “any protections you require.” Chris also says that that you can communicate all of this via email without needing a separate agreement document.

<cringe><shudder>

While Chris is technically right, I would never advise a client to operate their business this way. This is the type of contract that works when nothing goes wrong; however, contracts exist to save you in two situations:

  1. When there’s confusion about the parties’ obligations, and
  2. When there’s a problem or dispute.

Always Have a Separate Written Contract

If there is situation where lawyers are needed to resolve a dispute, the first thing I ask my client is “Where’s your contract?” If it’s a series of emails, and perhaps some text messages, and phone calls or conversations you claim occurred, the first part of my job will be compiling the terms of the agreement.

When there’s a single agreement, all the terms are in one place. And when the contract requires that all changes must be in writing and signed by both parties, it minimizes the risk of confusion or a he-said-she-said situation.

When you don’t have the terms of the contract in a single document, it opens the door for complications in the future. In many cases, it’s more cost-effective to have a lawyer create a contract template for your side hustle than to have to hire one to piece together the terms from the parties’ communications and actions. 

Minimum Contract Terms

In general, I don’t advise people to write their own contracts (unless they have a law degree or sufficient contract experience), but here are the basic terms I’d expect to find a side hustle contract:

  • Parties to the contract
  • Purpose of the contract
  • Payment terms, including what happens if the customer doesn’t pay (e.g. entrepreneurs who require ½ the fee up front and ½ upon completion)
  • Intellectual property terms – related to creation, assignment, and/or license
  • Where and how problems will be resolved, including the venue, jurisdiction, and which state law will govern
  • If/how the parties can make changes to the contract
  • “Entire agreement” – all the terms in the contract are in the agreement
  • “Severability” – if the contract has any invalid terms then the parties will throw those out and the rest of the contract will remain
  • A provision that states if a party chooses not to use a right granted by the contract, they don’t waive their right to use it in the future

When I approach a new contract for a client, I try to mentally walk through the customer’s journey and address the problems that the client is trying to avoid and pre-plan how you want to deal with problems when they occur.

Using a Lawyer for your Side Hustle

If you’re going to have a side hustle, I recommend you sit down with a lawyer for an hour. Tell them your goals and your budget. An understanding lawyer will tell you about the legal issues you need to be aware of, can do a quick trademark search to see if the name(s) you want to use are already registered, and they can tell you want you can do yourself and what tasks you should hire a lawyer to do for you.

A Few Final Thoughts

Thinking about what missteps I’ve seen companies inadvertently commit, here are a few extra tidbits of information:

  • The terms of service for a website, online course, or mobile app are contracts. Write them or have them created with care.
  • Please don’t rip of another company’s terms of service and just change out the company and product names. That’s a recipe for trouble. You don’t want to represent that you do things that you don’t. I’ve also seen situations where the company’s terms of service says that it’s governed by New Jersey law and the company has no connection to that state. (The company they stole the terms from was in New Jersey.)

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The 10 Legal Commandments of Entrepreneurship

“Stained Glass Window Full of Light and Color” by Stock Photos for Free from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Since becoming a lawyer in 2011, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesses on a variety of legal issues. Looking back at some of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve experiences I’ve had and heard about from other business and intellectual property lawyers, I’ve come up with a list of the 10 legal commandments of entrepreneurship:

 

1. Thou shall have a business entity.

When you start a business, create a business entity – an LLC or corporation. Your accountant can tell you which option is best for you. By separating the business from your personal assets, you limit your personal liability if the business is sued. If you open a business without an entity (aka a sole proprietorship), you don’t have this layer of protection.

 

2. Thou shall maintain your corporate veil.

Creating a business entity is how you begin to limit your liability, and you perfect that protection with a “corporate veil.” This means having a separate bank account and credit card for the business, and the business accounts pay for business expenses and your personal accounts pay for personal expenses. This creates a clear delineation between where the company ends and the person begins in terms of your finances. If the company is sued and loses, it’s clear which assets belong to the company and your person assets are protected.

 

3. Thou shall have a signed contract at the beginning of a business relationship.

When you are hired by a client or hire someone, start with a signed contract. A contract is a relationship-management document. It is your master document that puts everyone on the same page regarding their responsibilities. This will help you avoid confusion and resolve problems. When a client comes to me with a problem with a customer, I often start by asking “What does your contract say?”

 

4. Thou shall be thoughtful and careful about looking online for a contract template.

Looking at templates online is a good place to get ideas about terms you might want to have in your contract, but don’t indiscriminately use any contract you find. You don’t know where it came from or whether it’s suitable for your needs.

 

5. Thou shall take the time to fully read and understand a contract before signing it.

Never be afraid to ask questions or request changes when considering a contract offered to you. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand, because if you sign it and later regret it, you may be stuck with it.

 

6. Thou shall respect others’ copyrights.

Do not use others’ work without permission. Create your own original content. It’s ok to be inspired by and quote others, but add something to the conversation. If we’re talking about images, do not pull any image you find using a regular Google search. Seek out sources that provide licenses for use, including images available under Creative Commons. If there is an image you want to use that’s not available, contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. To date, I’ve never had anyone say, “No.”

 

7. Thou shall check the USPTO before branding a company or product.

When entrepreneurs think “branding,” lawyers think “trademark.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a database where you can see what company names, product names, and logos others have applied for and registered for their products and services. You don’t want to fall in love with, or invest a lot of time and money in, a branding idea to find out that it’s already been claimed by someone else.

 

8. Thou shall outsource your taxes.

Every entrepreneur needs an accountant. Let them do what they’re good at.

In the time it would take you to try to do your own taxes, you could make more than enough money to pay an accountant to do your taxes for you.

 

9. Thou shall consult thy attorney.

Even when you want to do things yourself, talk to your lawyer to make sure you’re not setting yourself and your business up for future problems. My most cringe-worthy moments as a lawyer have been problems clients created for themselves that we could have helped them avoid completely if they had told us what they were thinking about doing. It is easier and cheaper to prevent legal problems than to fix them.

 

10. Thou shall act with integrity.

Put your energy into your own business, creating quality products or services for your audience.

You don’t need to stoop to bad-mouthing the competing, using trademarks that are confusing similar to others, or ride other’s coattails by doing things like using a web domain that will allow you to pull an audience based on someone else’ popularity (e.g., cybersquatting). Be so good at what you do that you don’t need to use others to make a name for yourself.

One last note: If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Accountants help you make money, lawyers help you keep it, and your peers will share their experiences so you can learn from them. If you are an entrepreneur, or have plans to become one, I hope you have people around you who can help you be successful.

If you want additional information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested. You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Copyright Notice Done Right

Copyright Notice on Burn

Last weekend, I watched a documentary, Burn, about the Detroit Fire Department. (It’s an intriguing documentary film about these amazing people and how the economy’s crash impacted these firefighters and their community.)

As a lawyer, one of the things I liked about this film was the simplicity of its copyright notice. It had the standard FBI and Interpol warnings (which play through while I’m grabbing a snack), but this last notice caught my eye. It said, “This copy of ‘Burn’ is licensed for Private Home Viewing Only. Any other use is prohibited.” The notice went on to state how to request permission for other uses.

One of the complaints about the use of legal verbiage in everyday life is that it’s often too long to be worth reading, it’s filled with complicated legalese, and it’s in a tiny font. (How many times have you accepted the terms on a site without reading it?) This notice combats everything that’s wrong with the current systems:

  • It used plain language.
  • It was short.
  • It was readable.

A ten year-old could read this and understand what it means. I have never met a ten year-old that’s tried to read the FBI warning before watching a movie.

This notice made me smile. I wish more creators do things like this when declaring their rights and informing others how to seek permission for different uses. Sometimes complicated legalese is necessary, but generally not in mundane situations. Legalese in everyday life should use everyday language.

I’m an advocate of writing contracts and notices in plain English and keeping them as short as possible while still being effective.  If you have questions about your copyright and contract needs, 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.

Staying Out of Trouble on Facebook Live

Selfie by Reyes Blanch from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Facebook Live is one of the more recent developments in live video streaming on the internet. When used properly, it’s a lot of fun to get a real-time glimpse into someone’s life or a breaking news situation. It has value, but it also has its place.

The Same Rules Apply
Legally speaking, the rules that apply to Facebook Live are the same rules that apply to live video apps. In 2015, I wrote a post about the legal dos and don’ts of Periscope. Those same rules apply to Facebook Live.

The challenge with live video . . . is it’s live. You can’t edit a live performance, so if you do something inappropriate or illegal, assume someone saw it, recorded it, and you may have to face consequences for it later. If you’re not jumping on Facebook Live to show a newsworthy event in real-time, I recommend you take a minute or two before you go live to think about the scope of want to talk about, what topics or language are out-of-bounds, and when you’ll know to stop the recording. This is especially true if you’re distraught or experiencing extreme emotions. If you’re especially upset, it may be better to wait a few hours until you’ve calmed down or record your thoughts without being live.

Playing Music on Facebook Live
A friend asked about the legalities of playing music during a Facebook Live broadcast. The rules that apply to radio stations, retail stores, and cover bands apply to a person who is live streaming. If the music is not in the public domain, the copyright holder has the right to control where their music is copied and played. Facebook Live is likely a public performance, so even if you own a copy of the song for personal enjoyment, you can’t play it publicly without a license. In these situations, the only person who can come after you for infringement is the copyright holder. If they don’t know or don’t care about what you’re doing, you may never get in trouble. (Of course there is an exception for someone who uses Facebook Live to give commentary or criticism of the music – that may be protected by fair use.)

Think Before You Post
As always, think before you post/broadcast yourself. Once you put something out there, you can never fully take it back. What seemed like a good idea in the moment may be tomorrow’s regret, with long-lasting implications. Last summer we saw the disturbing Facebook Live video of a Georgia mother beating her 16 year-old daughter. The woman wasn’t charged with assault, but I wonder what will happen the next time she applies for a new job and the news stories (with video) from this incident dominate the results when prospective employers search for her name.

These are my rules of thumb when it comes to posting anything on the internet:

  1. Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.
  2. Assume everything you post will be seen by four people: your best friend, your worst enemy, your boss, and your mother. If you don’t want to one of those people to see what you’re thinking about posting, don’t say it.

The laws that apply to the internet is an area of law that is constantly developing as cases are decided and new statutes are added to the rule book. If you want additional 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. You can also 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.

No Protection for Short Phrase T-Shirts

FUNNY ASS SHIRT by Douglas Muth from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions from people who sell shirts on Etsy, Café Press, or a similar website and they claim that another user is stealing their design. When I look more closely at the situation, I see all the person is selling is shirts with a short phrase, in a common font, and no other artwork or design elements. Many times, I have the unfortunate responsibility of telling them that there’s no intellectual property in their design, so there’s no infringement (that’s legalese for “stealing”).

No Copyright in Short Phrases
Copyright applies to original works of authorships when they are fixed in a tangible medium. A t-shirt is a tangible medium, and it’s possible to have an original work on a garment. However, short phrases aren’t original works, so the act of merely printing one on a shirt does not create a copyright-protected article.

If that’s all you’re selling – word or a phrase on a shirt – there’s likely nothing you can do (from a copyright perspective) to stop your competition from selling a shirt with the same phrase on it. If you look on any of these DIY shirt and craft sites, you’ll see the same phrases on shirts from different sellers. There’s no copyright protection for words, images, or phrases like “geek,” “reasonable person,” “Introverts Unite! Separately in your own homes,” and even more creative phrases like “terminally soulless douche canoe.”

The Anti-Titanic Shirt

This used to be less of a problem before we had Teespring, Zazzle, and sites that make it easy to create and sell shirts and whatnot. In the past, if you wanted to sell a shirt, you had design it, have it printed, and then sell them in shop or on the street, or if you had html skills, you could create a website and people could mail you a check for a shirt. That’s what my friend, Peter Shankman, did when he sold anti-Titanic shirts in 1998. He started selling them in Times Square and then sold them online. He was a success, in part, because he had no competition.

What Could be Infringement
Every t-shirt design on Etsy is not up for grabs. Copyright does not protect short phrases, but it does protect designs with original artwork on them. Additionally, copyright protects the images you post of your shirts on your site. If you see another seller using your photos, that would likely be infringement (assuming it’s your photo). Sending a DMCA takedown may be sufficient to get them removed from their online store.

The other thing to watch for is trademark infringement. A seller can use a short phrase as a trademark to brand their wares. They can also create a logo that they put on their products. If you see someone using your trademark or a mark that is similarly close to yours, that could be infringement and worth investigating.

Beat the Competition in the Marketplace
For anyone who is selling these types of shirts, the best way to deal with your competition is be better than they are. Give your customers a reason to buy from you than from another seller, or having it made at a t-shirt shop. It could be your prices, the quality of the garments, or something about your company that makes you more desirable than the others.

Beyond that, you may want to consider upping your t-shirt game by creating or purchasing designs that will be protected by the Copyright Act.

Copyright is an area of the law with many gray areas, so if you’re having legal issues regarding your copyright rights, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about copyright and other IP issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Copyright License for Commissioned Art

“and the years have wings, detail” by Olivia Kirby from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

There are services that will print your photos and other artwork onto canvas – even in Walgreens. I recently heard of a situation where a customer commissioned an artist to create a portrait. The artist created the work and sent it to the customer as a JPG file, that the customer could use to get it printed onto paper or canvas. This may be a more efficient and cost-effective way for artists to create original pieces for customers.

The customer took the image to be printed on canvas, and the photo processor refused to do it without a release from the artist. I’d never heard of a printer requiring this, but the customer encountered this problem when they tried to use two different printers. To avoid such problems and delays in the future, the artist should provide a license with the JPG file for printing in case the customer is required to provide it.

Photo Processors and Copyright Infringement
Should photo processors be concerned about customers using their services to make unlawful copies of another person’s work? Probably not. I suspect a customer that comes in with a JPG to create one photo product is likely not committing copyright infringement. Of course, there’s an exception for art that is so well-known that a reasonable person would recognize the likelihood of infringement.

One way a photo processor could protect themselves from accusations of contributory copyright infringement would be to include a check box on the order form where the customer attests that they own or have permission to use the image in this way and indemnify the photo processor in the event of infringement lawsuit and with reimbursement for all related costs and damages. I know the company I use to print my custom t-shirts has this on their order forms.

License for Commissioned Work
This problem sounds like it’s easy to fix: the artist can add a licensing provision to the agreement that specifies upon payment in full, the customer will receive a JPG of the work and a license for how the customer may use it. That provision can specify that the artist retains ownership of the copyright and the customer may have the unaltered JPG printed on paper, canvas, and any other permitted medium for personal use (which may involve soliciting the services of a third party printer). That should hopefully be enough to satisfy the concerns of any printing service.

The artist may want to add other licensing terms, such as it’s a non-exclusive, paid-in-full, royalty-free license, whether the license is perpetual or time limited, how many prints the customer may make, and any other permissions or restrictions the artist wants to impose of their work. An intellectual property lawyer can provide more information about what provisions to include in such an agreement.

I was surprised to hear about this situation, especially if the customer only asked for one print. I would expect the order to be more extreme to raise a red flag for a printer, but on the other hand, I’m pleased to see printers being mindful about what they’re being asked to create. The laws and rights related to intellectual property are complicated and always situation-dependent. If you want to connect with me about your intellectual property rights as a consumer or an artist, 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.

Using Movie Clips in your YouTube Videos

Wedding Crashers by Kurt Bauschardt from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Some people incorporate clips from mainstream movies into their YouTube videos. Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be legal.

Movie Studio’s Rights
Whoever owns the copyright in the movie has the exclusive right to control where the work can be copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. This applies to the whole film and clips of it. The copyright owner is also the only one who can come after someone for copyright infringement. So, if they don’t know or don’t care about what another person is doing with their work, that person will never get in trouble.

What about Fair Use?
The powers that wrote the Copyright Act understood that existing artwork inspire other artists to create new works. To that effect, they created the fair use provision of the copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 107 if you want to look it up).

The fair use law allows a person to use another’s work for the purpose of criticism, commentary, research, and teaching – often in ways that thoughtfully add to the existing work. The law provides four factors that the court may consider in determining whether a use is copyright infringement or fair use (which I turned into the handy mnemonic device PAIN), but these are merely points of consideration.

The fair use factors are not a mathematical equation to use to get a definite answer. The only way to know for certain if a use qualifies as fair use would be if there’s a lawsuit and the court makes a ruling on the matter. However, if the use of another’s work is transformative and doesn’t become a substitute for the original work in the market, there’s a good chance it’s fair use.

One way to avoid the issue about whether using a clip is copyright infringement or fair use, would be to get permission to use the clip by purchasing a license. Without this permission, there’s a risk that the copyright owner will order your video to be removed until the offending clip is removed.

Using a Movie Clip – Good Idea or Bad Idea?
If a client asked me about using a movie clip for a purpose other than criticism, commentary, as a teaching demonstrative, or an original compilation with other works, I’d challenge them to explain why they want to use that clip and what value it adds to their work. I’d also encourage them to at least do their homework on the copyright owner to see if they have a track record of going after people who use clips of their work without permission.

Ultimately, I respect my clients’ choices, but I try to help them make informed decisions about the risk they’re accepting when they use another’s work. Copyright and fair use situations are always complicated and always depend on the specific circumstances. If you want to connect with me and hear more thoughts about copyright, 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.