Almost every week, we write about some legal issue that arises in digital and social media – many times talking about the traditional media company that did something that they shouldn’t have done in the online world, and ended up with some legal issues as a result. Two weeks ago, I conducted a webinar, hosted by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and co-sponsored by over 20 other state broadcast associations, where I tried to highlight some of the many legal issues that can be traps for the unwary. Issues we discussed included copyright and trademark issues, a reminder about the FTC sponsorship identification rules for online media, FCC captioning obligations, privacy implications, as well as discussions about the patent issues that have arisen with the use of software and hardware that makes the digital transmission of content possible. Slides from that presentation are available here and, for the full webinar, a YouTube video of the entire presentation is available below which can be reviewed when you have some spare time over this upcoming holiday or at any other time that you want to catch up on your legal obligations.

Some of the specific issues that we talked about are familiar to readers of this blog. We discussed the many issues with taking photographs and other content found on the Internet and repurposing them to your own website without getting permission from the content’s creator (see our articles here and here). Similar issues have arisen when TV stations have taken YouTube videos and played them on their TV stations without getting permission from the creator. Music issues arise all the time, especially in producing online videos and creating digital content like podcasts, as your usual music licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange don’t cover the reproduction and distribution rights involved when content is copied or downloaded rather than live-streamed (see our article here). The presentation also cautioned companies to be careful about trying to rely on “fair use” as there are no hard and fast rules on when a use of copyrighted materials without permission is in fact fair (see our articles here and here on that subject).

Similarly, there are many other potential pitfalls for digital media companies. We’ve written about some of the FTC rules on requiring sponsorship identification on sponsored digital content – even tweets and Facebook posts (see our articles here and here). Plus, there are always issues about privacy and security of personal information that sites collect – and particularly strict rules for content directed to children. And, as many stations found out when a company asserted patent infringement claims about digital music storage systems used by most radio stations (see our articles here and here), patent issues can also arise in connection with any companies use of digital media.
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As David Oxenford has previously commented, even in states where marijuana has been legalized, broadcasters should be cautious about accepting advertising for marijuana or related paraphilia.  Specifically, decisions by the FDA and the Department of Justice have done little to cut through the smoke shrouding the issue.  Now, perhaps the last United States agency that one might expect to have anything to say has weighed in as well, but the haze remains thick.

Specifically, the US Patent and Trademark Office is not viewed as a policy-making agency, charged with making decisions about what activities or behavior are permissible or impermissable.  Rather, it determines whether trademarks qualify for federal protection through registration, considering issues such as the distinctiveness of a mark and whether it is confusingly similar to a previously registered mark.  As we have discussed in our Trademark Basics for Broadcasters series and our follow-up free webinar, although the various factors seem cut and dried, there is often a great amount of subjectivity and discretion that goes into evaluating each factor.
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Tomorrow afternoon eastern time, I will be conducting a webinar for at least 20 state broadcast associations on legal issues for broadcasters in their social and digital media efforts.  We’ll talk about many of the potential legal landmines that can be hidden in these new media efforts, many of which we have written about

The protection of brands, slogans, positioning statements and program titles must be a high priority of any electronic media company. These assets establish the identity of any broadcaster, webcaster or other media company.  Media companies need to protect these assets through the rights accorded by trademark law.  We have been running a series of articles

With Election Day finally upon us, we wait in anticipation (and with a fair amount of nail biting) as the fate of our country is decided. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some trademark fun, looking at how law and trademarks can collide. But first, a reminder — don’t forget to dial into our upcoming Trademark Basics webinar, Tuesday, November 15th at 1pm Eastern Time for a live overview of the many issues we have discussed in the last few weeks. Register here today!

And now, back to the law. Even seasoned politicians can get into trademark trouble when crafting their campaign branding strategies. We’ve summarized three somewhat amusing cases below as an Election Day stress reliever!

  • One Quacky Dispute. Tim Hagan, a former candidate for the for governor of Ohio, ran a campaign against incumbent Governor Robert Taft riffing off of the famed “AFLAC DUCK” commercials, in which a white duck repeatedly quacks the AFLAC insurance company’s name in a distinctive, nasal tone. Hagan’s internet commercials included a crudely animated character made up of Governor Taft’s head sitting on the body of a white cartoon duck, with the duck quacking “TaftQuack” several times during each commercial. Hagan broadcast these commercials on his website, www.taftquack.com. The insurance company thought it was no quacking matter and filed a lawsuit in an Ohio district court. The court ultimately determined that the use of this character or the AFLAC marks did not constitute trademark infringement because the ads constituted core political speech warranting First Amendment protection.


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Over the last few weeks, we’ve offered insights about how you can stay out of legal hot water by establishing good practices with regard to your company’s trademark portfolio (see Part 5 of our Trade Basics series here, which contains links at the end to the other parts of the series). Unfortunately, not all companies have followed such wisdom. With Halloween just around the corner, we thought you might appreciate some Tips and Tales from the Trademark Crypt!

To help you avoid becoming another trademark horror story, don’t forget to dial into our upcoming Trademark Basics webinar, November 15th at 1pm Eastern Time for a live overview of the many issues we have discussed in the last few weeks. Register here today!

  • Searching Proposed Descriptive Marks. We have previously discussed how descriptive marks may become protectable as trademarks if they acquire what is known as “secondary meaning.” Just because a mark is descriptive doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t conduct a trademark search. In 1984, the manufacturer of GATORADE® beverages decided to use the slogan “Gatorade is Thirst Aid.” Its in-house counsel concluded that “Thirst Aid” was merely descriptive and therefore did not run a search before approving the slogan. A search would have revealed that the mark THIRST-AID® had been in use since 1921 and had been registered since 1950 in connection with soft drink products. The owner of the THIRST-AID® mark filed a trademark infringement claim and ultimately was awarded in excess of $10,000,000 in damages.
  • Running Down All Potential Impediments. Due diligence means more than running a trademark search. It means taking appropriate action to run down possible impediments before proceeding. In one case, a company named “Big O” used the marks “Big O Big Foot 60” and “Big O Big Foot 70” for tires, but its application to register BIG FOOT as a trademark was denied. Subsequently, Goodyear began using BIG FOOT for snowmobile tracks and, later, for tires. It ran a trademark search and concluded that there were no conflicting marks. It is not clear, but, most likely, the person who reviewed the search saw Big O’s abandoned application, but may not have tried to determine whether the mark was still in use. (It should be noted, however, that in 1974, the ability to locate marks that were in use, but were not registered, was far more limited than today.) In any event, a jury awarded Big O $2.8 million in damages (which was reduced to $678,302 on appeal) and $16.8 million in punitive damages (which was reduced to approximately $4.1 million on appeal).
  • Running Down All Potential Impediments – Part 2. Many companies translate their marks into Spanish for purposes of marketing to the Hispanic community. Even with a well-established trademark, a search should be conducted for the translated mark. Several months ago, a trademark infringement action was filed against Kentucky Fried Chicken for using “Para chuparse los dedos” on the basis that it is the Spanish-language translation of “Finger Lickin’ Good.” The plaintiff owns a restaurant in Southern California and has a registration for a logo that contains the identical phrase, “Para Chuparse Los Dedos,” which it says translates to “To Lick Your Fingers” in English. (We offer no comment on the possible outcome of this litigation, but mention it to illustrate the need for a thorough and competent trademark search before using almost any new mark.)
  • Clearing Advertising Copy. Famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer has reportedly been involved with at least 100 legal actions over his famous catchphrase LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE® and claims to have never lost a case. Unfortunately, many radio stations and other media outlets have used the phrase without authorization (presumably without first consulting counsel), with many not aware that the catchphrase is legally protected, and have ended up on the receiving end of a cease and desist letter from Buffer’s attorney. At least one station was brought to court and was held liable for $175,000 worth of damages, while other awards have ranged from four to six figures.


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Once you have identified your marks and sought protection through registration for some or all of them, there are still going to be other issues that you will need to consider. Trademark owners have an obligation to police their marks and take steps to stop infringers. Otherwise, they may run the risk that someone else will profit off their marks or tarnish the reputation they have developed for those marks. In extreme cases, the failure to police one’s marks may result in losing them entirely. The biggest issues in trademark protection today arise from the use of trademarks on the Internet. In this blog, we identify some situations that you may encounter or want to think about.

Also, note that we have set a date for our free webinar – please join us on November 15th at 1pm Eastern Time for a live overview of the many issues we have discussed in this series. You can register here.

Cybersquatting

You undoubtedly have one or more websites to promote your services, to interact with your listeners or viewers or to make video or audio available for online viewing or listening. You have spent a fair amount of time and money promoting your sites. Then, you learn that someone else has registered and is using a domain name that is confusingly similar to your domain name or one of your trademarks to attract traffic to their site. There are numerous ways that these cybersquatters can register a variation on your domain name or mark: adding (or dropping) a hyphen, adding a generic term, misspelling a word, omitting a letter, and replacing the letter “o” with a “zero” or the letter “l” with a “one” are some of the most common.
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Last week, we discussed the benefits of federally registering your trademarks.  But having a few federal registrations under your belt doesn’t mean your task of building a valuable trademark portfolio is complete.  There are several additional steps you can take to make sure you are managing your trademarks wisely and getting the most value from them.

As we discussed last week, federal registration gives you many benefits and it is the most cost-effective way to protect your brand.  Once you have those registrations in hand, however, it is important to periodically take stock in what you own and what you are (or are no longer) using.  This can help you identify (1) new brands that can be exploited, potentially opening up new lines of licensing revenue, (2) vulnerabilities in your current trademark practices that could expose you to the risk of litigation, and (3) cost savings by identifying marks that are no longer in use and discontinuing their maintenance and enforcement.  Proactively maintaining your trademark portfolio can also help you avoid surprises.  Imagine discovering that an important trademark registration has lapsed only through the due diligence being conducted by a potential buyer of your station or station group.  Not only is that an embarrassing position to be in, but it could compromise your valuation and your negotiating power.
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In last week’s Part Two of our series on Trademark Basics, we discussed the benefits of conducting a clearance search to try to ensure that the mark you are considering adopting doesn’t infringe on the rights of anyone else. Say the results of your clearance search have come back clean and, according to your trusted legal advisor, you should be able to use your trademark without worrying about being slapped with a demand letter. Why not just use your mark and save yourself the time and money it takes to obtain a federal registration?

Quite simply, federal registration gives you many valuable benefits at an extremely low cost (the filing fee for a trademark application can be as low as $225), and it is the most cost effective way to protect your brand. Here are the top nine reasons you should take the next step and file a trademark application with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), along with a quick overview of the registration process. For those of you that have been following our five part series on Trademark Basics, we will divulge the 10th reason for seeking federal registration in our upcoming trademark webinar, the date for which we will be announcing soon.
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In last week’s article beginning this series on Trademark Basics, we gave an overview of trademark basics and discussed why building up a strong trademark portfolio should be an important part of any media company’s overall business strategy.  This week, we will discuss why identifying marks that you may use must be a key feature of your branding strategy.  The reason is simple – you don’t want to invest thousands of dollars in a mark – building websites and social media campaigns around it, promoting it on air, creating bumper stickers, calendars, t-shirts, and other swag – only to get slapped with a demand letter from someone claiming that it owns the rights to that mark.  That user can potentially force you to cease using the mark on air and online, destroy all physical materials that use the mark, and pay damages for your infringing use of the mark.  This development could blow a station’s marketing budget in the blink of an eye.  Thankfully, this scenario is avoidable by doing some advance sleuthing before committing to a mark.  So, what steps can you take to stay out of legal hot water?

There is a common misconception that, once you register a trademark at the federal level, you are “protected” against any claims of infringement.  As a result, many companies skip the sleuthing and simply file a federal trademark application when they adopt a new mark.  This is a very dangerous practice that could potentially cost you in the end because the application might be rejected by the Trademark Office or opposed by someone with prior rights in the mark.  Indeed, even if a mark is federally registered, someone with prior rights has five years in which to challenge your use or registration of the mark.  In order to minimize these possibilities, it is critical that, before you settle on a new mark, you conduct a trademark search.  Running a search will allow you to see what, if any, other parties may have rights in marks identical or similar to your proposed mark.  What does this entail, exactly?
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