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Valar Qringaomis

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"The parties are advised to chill"

"Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love" - Noël Coward


***

MATTEL, INC.
v
MCA RECORDS, INC. etc


"If this were a sci-fi melodrama, it might be called SpeechZilla meets Trademark Kong.

Barbie was born in Germany in the 1950s as an adult collector’s item. Over the years, Mattel transformed her from a doll that resembled a “German street walker,” as she originally appeared, into a glamorous, long-legged blonde. Barbie has been labeled both the ideal American woman and a bimbo. She has survived attacks both psychic (from feminists critical of her fictitious figure) and physical (more than 500 professional makeovers). She remains a symbol of American girlhood, a public figure who graces the aisles of toy stores throughout the country and beyond. With Barbie, Mattel created not just a toy but a cultural icon.

With fame often comes unwanted attention. Aqua is a Dan- ish band that has, as yet, only dreamed of attaining Barbie- like status. In 1997, Aqua produced the song Barbie Girl on the album Aquarium. In the song, one bandmember imperson- ates Barbie, singing in a high-pitched, doll-like voice; another bandmember, calling himself Ken, entices Barbie to “go party.” (The lyrics are in the Appendix.) Barbie Girl singles sold well and, to Mattel’s dismay, the song made it onto Top 40 music charts.

Mattel brought this lawsuit against the music companies who produced, marketed and sold Barbie Girl: MCA Records, Inc., Universal Music International Ltd., Universal Music A/S, Universal Music & Video Distribution, Inc. and MCA Music Scandinavia AB (collectively, “MCA”)...

A trademark is a word, phrase or symbol that is used to identify a manufacturer or sponsor of a good or the provider of a service. See New Kids on the Block v. News Am. Publ’g, Inc., 971 F.2d 302, 305 (9th Cir. 1992). It’s the owner’s way of preventing others from duping consumers into buying a product they mistakenly believe is sponsored by the trademark owner. A trademark “inform[s] people that trademarked products come from the same source.” Id. at 305 n.2. Limited to this core purpose—avoiding confusion in the marketplace —a trademark owner’s property rights play well with the First Amendment. “Whatever first amendment rights you may have in calling the brew you make in your bathtub ‘Pepsi’ are easily outweighed by the buyer’s interest in not being fooled into buying it.” Trademarks Unplugged, 68 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 960, 973 (1993).

The problem arises when trademarks transcend their identifying purpose. Some trademarks enter our public discourse and become an integral part of our vocabulary. How else do you say that something’s “the Rolls Royce of its class?” What else is a quick fix, but a Band-Aid? Does the average consumer know to ask for aspirin as “acetyl salicylic acid?” See Bayer Co. v. United Drug Co., 272 F. 505, 510 (S.D.N.Y. 1921). Trademarks often fill in gaps in our vocabulary and add a contemporary flavor to our expressions. Once imbued with such expressive value, the trademark becomes a word in our language and assumes a role outside the bounds of trademark law...

The trademark owner does not have the right to control public discourse whenever the public imbues his mark with a meaning beyond its source- identifying function. See Anti-Monopoly, Inc. v. Gen. Mills Fun Group, 611 F.2d 296, 301 (9th Cir. 1979) (“It is the source-denoting function which trademark laws protect, and nothing more”)...

The song does not rely on the Barbie mark to poke fun at another subject but targets Barbie herself. See Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 580 (1994); see also Dr. Seuss Ents., L.P. v. Penguin Books USA, Inc., 109 F.3d 1394, 1400 (9th Cir. 1997). This case is therefore distinguish- able from Dr. Seuss, where we held that the book The Cat NOT in the Hat! borrowed Dr. Seuss’s trademarks and lyrics to get attention rather than to mock The Cat in the Hat! The defendant’s use of the Dr. Seuss trademarks and copyrighted works had “no critical bearing on the substance or style of” The Cat in the Hat!, and therefore could not claim First Amendment protection...

If we see a painting titled “Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup,” we’re unlikely to believe that Campbell’s has branched into the art business. Nor, upon hearing Janis Joplin croon “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?,” would we suspect that she and the carmaker had entered into a joint venture. A title tells us something about the underlying work but seldom speaks to its origin...

Rogers concluded that literary titles do not violate the Lanham Act “unless the title has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic rele- vance, unless the title explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work”...

Mattel separately argues that, under the Federal Trademark Dilution Act (“FTDA”), MCA’s song dilutes the Barbie mark in two ways: It diminishes the mark’s capacity to identify and distinguish Mattel products, and tarnishes the mark because the song is inappropriate for young girls. See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c); see also Panavision Int’l, L.P. v. Toeppen, 141 F.3d 1316, 1324 (9th Cir. 1998).

“Dilution” refers to the “whittling away of the value of a trademark” when it’s used to identify different products. 4 J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 24.67 at 24-120; § 24.70 at 24-122 (2001). For example, Tylenol snowboards, Netscape sex shops and Harry Potter dry cleaners would all weaken the “commercial magnetism” of these marks and diminish their ability to evoke their original associations...

After Mattel filed suit, Mattel and MCA employees traded barbs in the press. When an MCA spokeswoman noted that each album included a disclaimer saying that Barbie Girl was a “social commentary [that was] not created or approved by the makers of the doll,” a Mattel representative responded by saying, “That’s unacceptable. . . . It’s akin to a bank robber handing a note of apology to a teller during a heist. [It n]either diminishes the severity of the crime, nor does it make it legal.” He later characterized the song as a “theft” of “another company’s property.”

MCA filed a counterclaim for defamation based on the Mattel representative’s use of the words “bank robber,” “heist,” “crime” and “theft.” But all of these are variants of the invective most often hurled at accused infringers, namely “piracy.” No one hearing this accusation understands intellectual property owners to be saying that infringers are nautical cutthroats with eyepatches and peg legs who board galleons to plunder cargo. In context, all these terms are nonactionable “rhetorical hyperbole,” Gilbrook v. City of Westminster, 177 F.3d 839, 863 (9th Cir. 1999). The parties are advised to chill."
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