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This Mashup Is Not a Place You’ll Go – Seuss Copyright Will ‘Live Long and Prosper’

Presented with a publishing company defendant’s mashup of Dr. Seuss’ copyrighted works with Star Trek in a work titled Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go!, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tackled claims of both copyright and trademark infringement, including the defense of fair use and the use of trademarks in expressive works. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendants on the copyright infringement claim and affirmed the district court’s dismissal and grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants on the trademark claim. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. ComicMix LLC, et al., Case No. 19-55348 (9th Cir. Dec. 18, 2020) (McKeown, J.)

Seuss Enterprises owns the intellectual property in the works of late author Theodor S. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Seuss Enterprises carefully yet prolifically licenses the Dr. Seuss works and brand across a variety of entertainment, media, art and consumer goods, including derivative works of Dr. Seuss’ final book, and graduation favorite, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! When Seuss Enterprises encountered a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! mashup work created by ComicMix (a company whose employees include an author of Star Trek episodes), it filed suit for copyright and trademark infringement. The district court granted ComicMix’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the Boldly work was a fair use of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and that Seuss Enterprises did not have a cognizable trademark infringement claim under the Lanham Act. Seuss Enterprises appealed.

On appeal, ComicMix asserted its defense of fair use by arguing that its copying of the Dr. Seuss works (described at one point in the record as painstaking attempts to create “identical” illustrations) resulted in a parody of the works. The Ninth Circuit examined the facts under the four non-exclusive factors of fair use reflected in § 107 of the Copyright Act:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Remarking that the outcome of the purpose and character of the use factor influences the assessment of the third and fourth factors, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Boldly work was not transformative as a parody or otherwise, and that the “indisputably commercial” nature of the work weighed against fair use. The Court explained that a parody exists only if the resulting work critiques or comments on the underlying copyrighted work. The Ninth Circuit cited its decision in another Seuss case (Dr. Seuss Enters. v. Penguin Books), which involved the retelling of the O.J. Simpson murder trial through the lens of The Cat in the Hat. Here, the Court similarly found that Boldly only “evokes” Oh, the Places [...]

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Jersey Boys Don’t Cry: No Copyright Protection for Facts “Based on a True Story”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law finding that the musical Jersey Boys did not infringe a copyright held in an autobiography of band member Tommy DeVito. Donna Corbello v. Frankie Valli, et al., Case No. 17-16337 (9th Cir. Sept. 8, 2020) (Berzon, J.).

In the 1990s, Rex Woodard ghostwrote an autobiography of Tommy DeVito, one of the original members of the 1950s quartet the Four Seasons. Woodard and DeVito agreed to split the profits equally. However, shortly after finishing the book, and before finding a publisher, Woodard died. Donna Corbello, Woodard’s widow, became the successor-in-interest to the book, and she continued the search for a publisher. Almost 15 years later, Corbello still had not published the book.

DeVito’s autobiography reads as a straightforward historical account of the Four Seasons. At the beginning of the book, DeVito, as the narrator, describes his autobiography as a “complete and truthful chronicle of the Four Seasons,” and he promises not to let “bitterness taint the true story.” Corbello also sent letters to potential publishers emphasizing that the book provided a “behind-the-scenes” look at the Four Seasons. In all accounts, the book is a non-fiction, historical chronicle of events of the Four Seasons.

In 2005, the musical Jersey Boys debuted on Broadway. Jersey Boys also depicts the history of the Four Seasons from its origins in New Jersey to its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. DeVito admitted to working with people involved in developing Jersey Boys and sharing the book with the individuals researching the history of the band.

In 2007, Corbello sued DeVito and 14 defendants, including the band members and the writers, directors and producers of Jersey Boys. The complaint included 20 causes of action, including various forms of copyright infringement. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on most of the claims. Corbello appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, vacated its assessment of costs against Corbello, and remanded for further proceedings.

On remand, the case proceeded to a jury trial where the jury found that the musical infringed the book and that use of the book was not fair use. After the verdict, the district court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, concluding that any infringement was fair use. Corbello appealed.

On appeal, the central disagreements were whether the musical was substantially similar to the book and whether the defendants copied any protectable portions of the book. The Ninth Circuit analyzed the similarities under the extrinsic test for substantial similarity. The appellate court found that each of the similarities failed because they involved only non-protectable elements of the book. Those non-protectable elements included DeVito depicting himself in the musical (a character based on a historical figure is not protected); Bob Gaudio arriving late to rehearsal, excited about a new song he just [...]

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Diamonds to Dust? Too Many Factual Disputes Precludes Summary Judgment

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s summary judgment grant in favor of a fine jewelry producer for trademark infringement, counterfeiting and unfair competition because factual disputes exist around whether the accused infringer’s use of the word “Tiffany” was merely descriptive of a particular ring setting, thereby supporting a fair use defense to infringement. Tiffany and Company v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, Case Nos. 17-2798-cv, -19-338, -19-404 (2nd Cir. Aug. 17, 2020) (Livingston, J.).

In 2012, a Costco customer alerted Tiffany that she believed Costco was selling diamond engagement rings advertised as Tiffany rings. When Tiffany approached Costco about the issue in December 2012, Costco asserted that its point-of-sale displays bearing the Tiffany name referred to the diamond setting styles of its rings, and that other similar point-of-sale displays also identified common ring settings such as “bezel” or “cathedral” settings. Costco also claims that within one week after Tiffany’s December 2012 outreach, it voluntarily removed all uses of “Tiffany” from its jewelry displays and has not since used the word “Tiffany” to identify any rings or setting styles.

Nevertheless, in 2013, Tiffany filed suit against Costco for trademark infringement and counterfeiting under the Lanham Act, and unfair competition in violation of New York state law, based on Costco’s sales of otherwise unbranded diamond engagement rings identified by point-of-sale signs containing the word “Tiffany.” In response, Costco raised the affirmative defense of fair use, arguing that its use of “Tiffany” on certain signage for rings was not as a source-identifying trademark, but merely to describe a particular six-prong diamond setting style. Costco also filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel certain federal trademark registrations for the TIFFANY mark as “generic” for a specific jewelry setting, and not entitled to registered trademark protection.

The district court granted Tiffany’s motion for summary judgment finding Costco liable for trademark infringement and counterfeiting as a matter of law. The district court then revised a jury’s damages award finding that Costco was liable for willful or intentional infringement to the tune of more than $21 million. Costco appealed.

On appeal, Costco argued it had successfully raised a question of material fact as to its liability for trademark infringement and counterfeiting and was entitled to present its fair use defense to a jury. The Second Circuit addressed the lower court’s trademark “likelihood of confusion” assessment under its own Polaroid factors and explained that if a factual inference must be drawn to arrive at a particular finding on a Polaroid factor, and if a reasonable trier of fact could reach a different conclusion, the district court may not properly resolve that issue on summary judgment. Here, the Court determined that Costco raised a triable question of fact as to at least three of the Polaroid factors, namely, (1) whether Costco’s customers were actually confused as to the source or affiliation of its diamond engagement rings, (2) whether Costco adopted Tiffany’s trademark in bad faith and (3) whether the relevant population of consumers was sufficiently [...]

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Ninth Circuit Gleefully Rejects Copyright Claims against California High School

Affirming a district court’s summary judgment in favor of various defendants, including the vocal music director and parent volunteers at Burbank High School (whose competitive show choirs reportedly inspired the television series “Glee”), the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examined issues of standing via copyright ownership and the copyright infringement defense of fair use. The Court, however, reversed the lower court’s denial of defendants’ attorneys’ fees and remanded for the calculation of an appropriate award in view of plaintiff’s “objectively unreasonable” arguments in the lawsuit. Tresóna Multimedia, LLC, v. Burbank High School Vocal Music Association, et. al., Case No. 17-56006 (9th Cir., Mar. 24, 2020) (Wardlaw, J.).

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