Trademarks and Brands

Top Five List: Protecting Your Podcast (and You)

By Scott J. Sholder

Although podcasts have been around in one form or another since the early aughts, their ubiquity and popularity has skyrocketed in recent years.  Apple, Spotify, Pandora, Google, and Stitcher, among other platforms, have changed the game when it comes to distribution, variety, and access.  Wildly popular programs like Serial, Pod Save America, My Favorite Murder, and The Daily have set the standard for content excellence across the news and mystery genres, while The Joe Rogan Experience, Comedy Bang! Bang!, WTF with Marc Maron, and Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend are leading the way in the comedy space.

If you want your dulcet tones to break into the digital airwaves and bring your audience information or entertainment and laughs (or maybe all three), you will of course need solid distribution and top-notch content.  But you also need legal protection both for you and for your content.  While podcasting may seem straightforward enough to not warrant the involvement of a lawyer, there’s more to it than you might think.  Here are five things to do to protect yourself and your content when entering the world of podcasting.

  1. Form a Company:  You may have already done this, but setting up a company, whether a corporation, partnership, or LLC, is a smart first step in becoming a content provider.  Apart from tax implications (which your accountant can explain to you), the corporate form creates a shield around you to protect your personal assets from certain forms of liability (for instance, breach of contract), limiting legal exposure to the assets of the company where it can be said that the company is the liable party.  The corporate form may not protect you from torts such as defamation and copyright infringement if you (intentionally or not) slip up in your individual capacity, but the company can still potentially absorb the exposure for torts it is deemed to have committed.  You may also want to use a corporation or LLC to hold your intellectual property (more on IP below) or “loan out” your services as talent, which can be helpful from a financial standpoint (again, talk to your accountant).  Setting up a company can be simple enough to be a DIY project but might become more complicated, requiring professional advice, depending on the arrangement you want and if you have multiple shareholders or members.  But it’s generally not that expensive and could save you headaches in the long run.  Once you’ve formed your company, make sure that you assign any existing contracts to the company (an attorney can help you with this as well), and that future contracts are in the name of the company – not your own name.

  2. Obtain Copyright and Trademark Protection:  To protect your original content, you should apply to register copyrights in that content.  While ideas and concepts are not copyrightable, the tangible expression of those ideas is, including scripts, sound recordings, skits or sketches, songs, and even, in some instances, individual jokes.  If the content is original to you (i.e., not simply copied from someone else) and is in a “fixed” medium of expression, you can apply to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.  The application process is more straightforward than the trademark process (discussed below) and the basic fees are reasonable; the bar to obtaining a registration is also pretty low in that “originality” for copyright purposes requires only minimal creativity, and it is far less likely that another copyright owner will challenge your application.  While it may seem onerous to register each episode of a podcast – especially if you release episodes more than once a week – there are ways to potentially streamline the process and keep costs down, and copyright counsel can be helpful in this regard.  Registering copyrights will also help you if your podcast one day moves into other media, such as television or a published book.

    Have a clever name for your podcast?  You should consider applying for a trademark registration.  If you offer goods or services (including entertainment services like podcasts) using a name, logo, or short phrase as a source indicator, you may be eligible for federal trademark protection through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  Simply using the word, phrase, or logo “in commerce” is enough to give you some rights to enforce against infringers, but registration gives you more rights and enhanced damages if someone tries to rip off your mark.  It’s important to note, though, that there are filing fees and other expenses involved in applying to register a trademark (and in maintaining a trademark once it is registered), and during the application process other trademark owners have a chance to challenge your mark if they think it is too similar to theirs.  The application process is also more complex than applying to register a copyright and it is usually advisable to seek legal counsel to help ensure your mark is not “blocked” or otherwise rejected. 

  3. Obtain Necessary Licenses, Releases, and Permissions:  If you are using third-party content (playing audio clips or music, reading from a script or a book, etc.), you should make sure you have permission to do so from the owner of the copyright.  Despite popular misconceptions, there is no magic percentage that you can use without consequence (e.g., 8 measures of a song, 30 seconds of a comedy bit, 5% of a book) and the question of whether something is “fair use” is complex, gray, and extremely fact sensitive.  The best practice is to make sure you have a license (whether written or oral) to use content that is not exclusively yours or seek out content from royalty-free libraries or that can be used under Creative Commons licenses.  And when that content includes the voice or other identifying aspect of a third party, you’ll need to get that person’s permission as well, separate from the necessary copyright permissions.  A person’s voice is part of their “right of publicity” which is distinct from copyright and generally (with some exceptions) requires permission to use.

    If you have guests appear on your podcast, make sure they sign an appearance release that allows you to use their names and likenesses (e.g., voices) including for commercial, advertising, and promotional purposes and that releases you from liability for the ways in which guests’ names and likenesses are used.  While the best practice is to get written permission, you can also secure this consent verbally by having the guest read a brief script on air.  There are special considerations when dealing with minors that are beyond the scope of this article, and in such situations, it is best to consult a lawyer familiar with minor talent. 

  4. Vet Your Content and Read Your Contracts:  Related to number 3, if you are using third-party content (assuming you have permission), you should make sure that content doesn’t infringe anyone else’s rights.  Issues in the podcasting space, especially in comedy, usually arise in the context of defamation.  For example, if you source a clip of another comedian’s latest standup special and that comedian makes a defamatory statement about another identifiable person, you may be liable for re-publishing that defamatory statement.  The best practice is to review content before using it and consult a lawyer if you have concerns about any piece of content. 

    Also, if you sign any contracts, whether to acquire or license content, or for a third party to distribute or host your own content, read them before you sign them.  If you sign a contract you normally are bound even if you haven’t read it, so always understand what you are signing before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  When licensing third-party content, make sure you’re indemnified in case the person who provided you with the content didn’t have sufficient permission to do so, and when reviewing terms set out by hosting platforms, know who controls your RSS feed; typically, the host will control it for the period they host it, but unless your content is exclusive to one platform (for instance, Spotify), the platform should not own the stream or the content.  And note that in many jurisdictions, an email agreement is considered a binding contract – so be careful what you agree to via email.  Usually the best time to engage an attorney is when an offer is initially made to you – even if it takes the form of an email as opposed to a formal contract.  There are obviously more issues that may arise than just these, so don’t sign away your rights unknowingly!

  5. Get Errors and Omissions Insurance:  Many insurance companies offer E&O insurance for media and entertainment companies (such as AXIS Capital, AXA XL, QBE, and OneBeacon) and getting coverage is a smart idea particularly given how much litigation arises out of media and entertainment properties.  Media insurance policies often cover copyright and trademark claims, contract claims, defamation claims, and other risks that commonly arise in the media and entertainment space.  While this may seem like an unnecessary cost, especially for an individual or small business, those who make their living in media and entertainment should seriously consider it – and as the podcast business becomes more mature and sophisticated, insurance is increasingly being required in connection with certain forms of distribution.

CDAS Named a Top Tier Firm, Nationally, for Entertainment Law and Trademark Law in U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms in America 2020,” and achieved High Rankings in Copyright and Media Law

CDAS achieved a Tier 1 ranking nationally for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television as well as Trademark Law. The firm was also ranked nationally in Tier 2 for Copyright Law. Within New York City, CDAS was ranked in Tier 1 for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television, Copyright Law and Trademark Law, and in Tier 3 for Media Law.

These competitive rankings are based on extensive client and peer review, focused on practice group expertise, responsiveness, understanding of business needs, cost-effectiveness, and other important parameters. Inclusion in “Best Law Firms” is considered a significant achievement.

SCOTUS Rules Federal Ban on Registration of “Immoral” or “Scandalous” Trademarks Violates the First Amendment

In a major win for free speech advocates, on Monday, June 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a federal statutory ban on the trademarking of words and symbols that are “immoral” or “scandalous” violates the First Amendment.

Erik Brunetti of Los Angeles, a fashion designer for the streetwear brand “FUCT,” brought suit after being denied registration of the mark “F-U-C-T.” Brunetti applied for registration of the mark in 2011, but an examining attorney of the United Stated Patent and Trademark Office refused registration on the grounds that the phonetically profane term was too “highly offensive” and too “vulgar.” Brunetti appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “TTAB”), but to no avail, as the TTAB affirmed the registration refusal. Brunetti took his case to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and sought a facial Constitutional challenge to the Lanham Act’s ban on “immoral or scandalous” marks; the appeals court held that the ban violated the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court granted cert.

In a rare bipartisan ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority, and in a 6-3 decision, was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justice Alito added a brief concurrence, and justices Sotomayor, Roberts, and Breyer each concurred in part and dissented in part.

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Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP Recognized as a 2019 Tier 1 National Firm for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television by U.S. News-Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms”

Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP is pleased to announce it has been named a Tier 1 national firm for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television for the second consecutive year by the 9th Edition of U.S. News-Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms.” CDAS is one of only 24 firms to receive this honor. Review the full list here.

CDAS was also recognized as a Tier 1 New York City Regional Firm in the areas of Copyright Law, Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television and Trademark Law.

Law firms ranked in the top-tier of the “Best Law Firms” guide are recognized for professional excellence and consistently receiving high ratings from clients and peers. The U.S. News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” rankings are determined by a rigorous peer-review survey comprised of more than 7.3 million evaluations from leading lawyers, as well as client evaluations, peer reviews from top attorneys and more.

Earlier this year, six CDAS attorneys were selected for inclusion in the 25th Edition of “The Best Lawyers in America:”

Frederick P. Bimbler         Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures and Television

Susan H. Bodine                Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures and Television; Media Law

Andrea F. Cannistraci       Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures and Television

Eleanor M. Lackman         Copyright Law; Trademark Law

Stephen Sheppard             Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures and Television

Nancy E. Wolff                   Copyright Law; Trademark Law

 

 

Chambers USA 2018 Ranks Partners Lackman and Wolff as Top IP Attorneys; Recognizes Two Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP (CDAS) Practice Groups

Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP is delighted to announce that partners Eleanor M. Lackman and Nancy E. Wolff and both CDAS’s Entertainment and IP, Copyright and Litigation Practices have been recognized by Chambers and Partners in the Chambers USA 2018: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business guide.

Eleanor M. Lackman

Nancy E. Wolff

This is the fifth consecutive year Ms. Lackman and the second consecutive year Ms. Wolff have been ranked in the Chambers USA guide. They are both among just 41 New York lawyers ranked in the field of “Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets – New York.”

“Impressed sources” told Chambers that Ms. Lackman is “an absolutely incredible trademark litigator” and added: “She is very practical and always seems to make the right call.” She also has notable experience handling copyright matters, often advising clients across the media and entertainment industries.

Chambers describes Ms. Wolff as “very well-known and well-respected.” She receives plaudits for her expertise in a range of complex copyright matters and is highlighted for her particular skill across the photography and visual art industry.

CDAS’s Entertainment Practice was awarded a regional designation of “Noted Firm” in “Media & Entertainment: Film, Music, Television & Theater – New York” for the third consecutive year, while the Firm’s IP, Copyright and Litigation Practice received a  “Noted Firm” designation in “Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets – New York” for the second consecutive year.

The annual guide ranks law firms and lawyers based on in-depth interviews with clients and lawyers, technical legal ability, professional conduct, client service, commercial astuteness, diligence, commitment, and other qualities most valued by the client.

Children’s Clothing Company Sinks in Trademark Row Against Viacom Over its Use of Term “GUPPIES” in Promotional Merchandise for “Bubble Guppies” Cartoon

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a lower-court decision that Viacom’s use of the trademark “BUBBLE GUPPIES” for promotional merchandise for its show of the same name did not infringe on a children’s clothing brand that had registered the trademark “GUPPIES,” primarily because the “GUPPIES” mark – which had been used for many years before Viacom’s use– was relatively unknown to the public.

According to the lawsuit, Plaintiffs Debbie and Dean Rohn have operated Guppie Kids, Inc., a children’s apparel brand, since 1990.  The couple registered two trademarks for apparel-related items: one for the word “GUPPIE,” an acronym for “Growing Up Playing Pursuing Individual Excellence,” and the other for a logo: the word “GUPPIE,” in which a fish in a necktie forms the letter G.   Continue reading

The Ninth Circuit Affirms Significant Legal Victory for Fox, Allowing Hit Television Series Empire to Continue Producing Show and Merchandise over Record Label Empire Distribution’s Objections

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed a lower court’s holding that Fox’s use of the name “Empire” for its hit television series is protected by the First Amendment, leaving record label Empire Distribution without any recourse on its trademark infringement claims.  A copy of the full decision is available here.  Of most significance is the court’s arguable expansion of the Rogers v. Grimaldi test for expressive use of trademarks into the realm of promotion and merchandise.

Empire Distribution, founded in 2010, records and releases albums in the genres of hip hop, rap, reggae, and R&B under the name “Empire.”  Its portfolio of artists includes Snoop Dog, T.I., and Kendrick Lamar.  In 2015, Fox premiered its Empire television show, a drama that centers on a fictional New York-based hip hop music and entertainment company called “Empire Entertainment.”  The Empire show features songs and original music, which Fox releases through Columbia Records after the episode airs, and packages as soundtrack albums at the end of each season – of which there have been four and counting. Continue reading

Waving the Checkered Flag: Ninth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Trademark Claims Arising from PlayStation Racing Games

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this week summarily affirmed a dismissal, from two years ago, of trademark claims brought by flooring company VIRAG, S.R.L. (“Virag”) against Sony Computer Entertainment America, LLC (“Sony”).  In a three-page unpublished opinion, the appeals court held that Sony’s use of the “VIRAG” trademark as set dressing in its Gran Turismo 5 and 6 video games was protected by the First Amendment and immune from liability under federal trademark law.  The ruling’s brevity, however, should not detract from its significance.

In 2004, Virag, a global commercial flooring distributor, became a sponsor of the Rally of Monza, a Formula One auto race held in Monza, Italy.  Starting in 2006, the plaintiff’s “VIRAG” mark was displayed on a bridge over the Monza track for each race.  Virag claims that its name and trademark has not only become affiliated with its products, but also the rally.  Continue reading

Band Not Banned: High Court Finds Unconstitutional Trademark Office’s Basis for Refusal to Register THE SLANTS Trademark

On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated decision in Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. __ (2017), issuing a ruling that clarifies that the door is open to trademark registration to a new category of trademarks:  trademarks that may disparage others.

The facts that the Court looked at are relatively simple:  The Slants, a dance-rock band whose members are Asian-Americans, sought to register their name as a trademark.  Although the band argued that they chose the name because they were looking to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) refused to register the mark THE SLANTS on the ground that it was a derogatory or offensive term.  An appeal to the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board failed on similar grounds.  But a further appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit resulted in this case finding itself before the U.S. Supreme Court:  the majority of the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, found that the USPTO’s basis to refuse to register THE SLANTS was unconstitutional. Continue reading

Elliot v. Google, Inc. (9th Cir. May 16, 2017): Internet Search Giant Dodges Grammar-Based Genericide of Its Ubiquitous Trademark

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled this month that Google’s trademark has not lapsed into the public domain by becoming generic even though today’s digital vernacular uses “google” as a verb synonymous with searching the Internet.  As a general rule, generic terms used as trademarks are not protectable because they do not identify the product’s source.  Also, an otherwise valid trademark like “GOOGLE” may suffer death by “genericide” when the public “appropriates” the trademark such that the “primary significance” of the mark is as a generic name for a particular type of good or service rather than an indicator of the source of that good or service.  Classic examples of former trademarks that are now generic terms include aspirin, thermos, brassiere, and cellophane.  On the contrary, the term “google,” at least according to the Ninth Circuit, still stands strong as a brand identifier. Continue reading

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