By Nicole Daniel
In January 2017 Apple filed suit against Qualcomm over its allegedly abusive licensing practices regarding wireless patents.
Apple filed patent, antitrust and breach of contract claims against Qualcomm; this could result in damages of billions of dollars. Apple’s suit comes after recent legal challenges against Qualcomm filed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in federal court and a class action by smartphone buyers. Furthermore, Korean authorities levied their own $854 million penalty and China’s National Development and Reform Commission extracted a penalty amounting to nearly $1 billion in 2015. Also in 2015 the European Commission sent statements of objections to Qualcomm.
Apple alleges that Qualcomm abused its monopoly in baseband processors that power both the iPad and the iPhone and broke its promise to license its standard essential patents at FRAND, i.e. fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory, rates. Qualcomm breached its FRAND obligations by selling chipsets powering smartphones and tablets and separately licensing standard-essential patents. Apple further alleges that Qualcomm refused to sell chipsets to customers unless they first licensed their standard-essential patents. This allegation is central to the Federal Trade Commission’s case too as well as Apple’s allegation that Qualcomm does not licence its standard-essential patents to competing chipset manufacturers. Tying the chipsets and licenses to cellular technology illegally strengthened Qualcomm’s monopoly and eliminated competition. Another allegation by Apple is that Qualcomm threatened customers who purchased chipsets from competitors with less favorable license and royaltyi terms.
Not only did Qualcomm charge inflated royalties for its patents but it also engaged in allegedly intimidating business practices. For example, Qualcomm allegedly tried to force Apple to lie to the South Korean antitrust enforcer in exchange for $1 billion which Qualcomm was obliged to pay anyway. Apple further states that because it provided evidence in antitrust investigations against Qualcomm in the U.S. and Korea, Qualcomm, as retribution, withheld $1 billion that it owed to Apple. Apple now wants damages for having been overcharged billions of dollars, enjoin Qualcomm from engaging in further violations of the law and declaratory relief holding that Apple does not infringe on a number of patents owned by Qualcomm. Apple also asks the court to determine the proper FRAND rates.
Qualcomm countered by calling Apple’s allegations “baseless” and accusing its opponent of encouraging the regulatory “attacks” on Qualcomm. Also the antitrust claims are driven by commercial disputes and Qualcomm will continue to defend its business model.
Furthermore, Qualcomm learned in January 2017 that an Apple subsidiary filed two complaints against Qualcomm in the Chinese intellectual property court. The first complaint regards inter alia violations of Chinese anti-monopoly law by offering excessive royalty terms on patents and chipsets whereas the second complaint regards a refusal to provide to Apple a royalty offer for cellular standard essential patents consistent with FRAND terms.
In April 2017 Qualcomm filed an answer and counterclaims in California federal court. In its filing Qualcomm detailed the value of the technologies it has invented and alleged that Apple failed to engage in good faith negotiations for licensing 3G and 4G essential patents on FRAND terms. The filing further outlines that Apple allegedly breached and mischaracterized both agreements and negotiations. Apple further encouraged regulatory attacks in various jurisdictions and did not utilize the full performance of Qualcomm’s modern chips in the iPhone 7. Apple allegedly also misrepresented the disparity in performance between iPhones using competitor-supplied modems and Qualcomm modems. Qualcomm was even threatened by Apple to prevent it from making any public comparisons about the superior performance of iPhones powered by Qualcomm.
Also in April 2017 Apple published a written statement stating that it has chosen to withhold patent royalties owed to Qualcomm by its contract manufacturers because over the course of the last five years Qualcomm has refused to negotiate fair terms.
It remains to be seen how the proceedings in this case continue.
By Nicole Daniel
In April 2017 Samsung filed an opening brief asking to vacate a design-patent judgment for $399 million and order a new trial on damages regarding their eleven smartphone models which have been found to infringe an Apple design patent.
According to Samsung the recent Supreme Court’s decision on design patents invalidates the legal premise on which the damages were tried in the earlier trials and further eliminates the legal basis for the $399 million award amounting to the total profit Samsung made on its phones.
This development comes after an unanimous Supreme Court decision made in December 2016. The Supreme Court ruled that the term “article of manufacture” in Section 289 of the Patent Act could apply to a component of a finished and not just the whole product.
Section 289 entitles a design patent holder to all profits derived from the “article of manufacture” that infringed the patent. The Supreme Court remanded a $399 million judgment against Samsung on three iPhone design patents back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. According to the Supreme Court ruling interpreting Section 289 to only cover the end product sold to a consumer is a too narrow meaning of the phrase. “Article of manufacture” is broad enough to cover the final product as well as a component of that product. This decision follows the oral arguments held in October 2016 where Apple, Samsung and the U.S. Department of Justice (participated as amicus in the case) agreed that it was incorrect by the Federal Circuit to hold that the term “article of manufacture” always has to be synonymous with the final product sold to the consumers.
From the ruling it follows that a single component of a device featuring multiple components, such as a smartphone, could be the basis for determining damages for infringing a design patent.
Samsung therefore argued that this Supreme Court ruling requires vacating the $399 million award and scheduling another trial for damages. In February 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals remanded the case back to U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, saying that the district court was in the best position to decide on the arguments of Apple and Samsung over the need for further trials.
In contrast to Samsung, Apple is of the opinion that no additional proceedings are necessary after the Supreme Court ruling. Apple argues that the Supreme Court’s decision did not identify any problems with the jury verdicts in 2012 and 2013 in the patent trials. Also Samsung never presented evidence or even argued that “article of manufacture” applied to anything other than the entire phone. Accordingly, no further proceedings are necessary as the ruling did not serve to question any aspect of the Court’s prior decisions. Further, the Supreme Court merely resolved a narrow question on the interpretation of the term “article of manufacture” which arose out of the Federal Circuit’s reading of this term in its original opinion. The Federal Circuit had interpreted the term in question as relating only to a finished product.
It also has to be noted that in March 2016 Judge Koh decided to delay a scheduled third trial in the case dealing with damages for Samsung’s smartphones found to infringe Apple’s trade dress. This decision by Judge Koh was made after the Supreme Court agreed to hear Samsung’s appeal on design patents. Therefore, a third trial in this case will take place anyway. For now the stay remains in place.
Judge Koh now scheduled a hearing for June 15 on the need for a further trial in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and ordered a case management conference for July 5.
By Marie-Andrée Weiss
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 16 May 2016 that ‘google’ is not a generic term for a search engine, and thus the famous California company did not suffer the costly indignity of having its trademarks cancelled through genericide. The case is Elliott v. Google, 2:12-cv-01072.
Plaintiffs had registered 763 domain names, each incorporating the word ‘google’ along with the name of a another brand (googledisney.com), of a person (googlebarackobama.net) or a place (googlemexicocity.com). This business plan did not fare well with the famous search engine company, which successfully asked the National Arbitration Forum to transfer all these domain names to Google.
Plaintiffs then filed a suit in the United States District of Arizona claiming that ‘Google’ “is, or has become, a generic term universally used to describe the action of internet searching with any search engines” (Complaint, p. 2), and asked the court to cancel Google’s trademarks. Indeed, the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1064(3), provides the right to petition for the cancellation of mark if it “becomes the generic name for the goods or services, or a portion thereof, for which it is registered.”
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the GOOGLE marks were generic: while Plaintiffs claimed that Google is a generic term because a majority of the public use it as a verb, Google argued that use of a trademark as a verb use is not automatically generic use. On 11 September 2014, the United States District of Arizona granted summary judgment for Google. Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed.
The Google trademarks
As mentioned in the original complaint, ‘Google’ comes from the term ‘googol,’ meaning a 1 followed by 100 zeros. Google holds a trademark registration for GOOGLE in class 9 for “computer hardware; computer software for creating indexes of information, indexes of web sites and indexes of other information resources” and another one in class 38 for “[p]roviding electronic mail and workgroup communications services over computer networks; providing multiple user access to proprietary collections of information by means of global computer information networks.”
Generic trademark and genericide
Needless to say, if a mark becomes generic, it is quite costly for the company that invested a lot in developing goodwill towards its brand. A generic term cannot serve as a trademark because it cannot serve as identifying the source of a product or service. Several famous marks, among them aspirin, cellophane, and thermos, fell victim of their success and became generic because they were used by the general public to designate the genus of their product, not just a particular brand. This is ‘genericide’.
The primary significance test
Plaintiffs had the burden of proving the genericide since they applied for the cancellation of the GOOGLE trademarks, and a registered trademark is presumed to be valid. They argued on appeal that the district court had misapplied the primary significance test, which was coined by the Supreme Court in its 1938 Kellog Co. v. National Biscuit Co. case: a mark is not generic if “the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer.” As noted by the Ninth Circuit, quoting Ty Inc. v. Sofbelly’s Inc., “a trademark only becomes generic when the “primary significance of the registered mark to the relevant public” is as the name for a particular type of good or service irrespective of its source.”
Plaintiffs argued that the district court had framed the inquiry as to whether the primary significance of ‘google’ to the consuming public is a generic name for search engines, whereas it should have inquired whether the public primarily uses ‘google’ as a verb. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with this argument for two reasons: genericide always relates to a particular good or service and using a trademark as a verb is not automatically generic use.
Genericide always relates to a particular good or service
For the Ninth Circuit, the District Court “properly recognized the necessary and inherent link between a claim of genericide and a particular good or service” (p. 9). The Court reasoned that failing to consider this would prevent some arbitrary marks to be protectable, giving as example IVORY which is arbitrary as applied to soaps, but would not be so for product made from the tusks of elephants.
The Ninth Circuit found that Plaintiffs’ “evidence was “’largely inapposite to the relevant inquiry under the primary significance test because [the Plaintiffs] ignor[e] the fact that a claim of genericide must relate to a particular type of goods or service’” (p. 13).
Using a trademark as a verb is not automatically generic use
Also, “verb use does not automatically constitute generic use” (p. 10). Plaintiffs had argued that a word can only be used as a trademark if it is used as an adjective. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, noting that it had found in Coca-Cola Co. v. Overland, Inc. that the mere fact that customers ordered “a coke” did not prove what they were thinking, a mark or a cola beverage, and more evidence was required about the customer’s inner thought process. Therefore, the use of a trademark as a noun may or may not be using it as a trademark (p. 11).
The primary significance test directed plaintiffs to provide evidence that that the primary significance of the GOOGLE trademarks is a general name for search engines, not a trademark identifying a particular search engine. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court which had found that, while the verb ‘google’ is indeed used to refer to searching on the internet, regardless of the search engine used, this fact alone cannot support a jury finding of genericide under the primary significance test, as it does not prove “how the public primarily understands the word itself, irrespective of its grammatical function, with regard to internet search engines” (p. 14).
How to prove that a mark has become generic
Plaintiffs also argued on appeal that the district court impermissibly weighted the evidence presented by Plaintiffs when granting summary judgment to Google. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, because, while Plaintiffs’ had presented admissible evidence that the majority of the public used ‘google’ as a verb, this was not enough to survive summary judgment, as it cannot alone prove genericide.
Plaintiffs had presented three surveys as evidence. Two were excluded by the district court because they had been conducted by Plaintiffs’ counsel, and “a valid survey design typically requires graduate training or professional experience in survey research” (p. 15). The third survey was a “Thermos survey,” that is a survey using open-ended questions, in our case, asking respondents how they would ask a friend to search something on the internet. The majority answered by using ‘google’ as a verb, and the survey was admitted as evidence that a majority of the public uses google as a verb meaning searching the internet.
Plaintiffs also gave examples of alleged generic use of ‘google’ by media and consumers, but they failed to convince both the district court and the Ninth Circuit, because Plaintiffs did not provide evidence that the use was indeed generic in the mind of the media and the consumers.
Plaintiffs had also offered expert testimony by three experts who all were of the opinion that ‘google’ is generic when used as a verb. However, this finding alone is not enough to prove genericide. Plaintiffs’ dictionary evidence did not prove either that ‘google’ is a generic name for internet search engines, only proving it is generic when used as a verb.
Plaintiffs also tried to prove that Google itself was using ‘google’ in a generic sense, presenting as evidence an email from Google cofounder Larry Page encouraging its recipients to “keep googling!” Generic use of a mark by its holder can support a finding a genericide, but the email was found by the court to be yet another example of the use of ‘google’ as a verb and did not prove that Larry Page had a particular search engine in mind (p. 19).
Finally, Plaintiff claimed that there was no efficient alternative for ‘google’ as a name for the act of searching the internet, but the Ninth Circuit drily noted that Google’s competitors do not use ‘google’ to refer to their own services (p.20).
‘Google’ may have become a verb, but this alone does not prove that GOOGLE is a generic mark. Keep googling.
By Marie-Andrée Weiss
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 5 April 2017 that the Copyright Act preempted the California right of publicity claims of Plaintiffs, former college athletes whose photographs are part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) library of images license online by Defendant. The case is Maloney v. T3Media, 15-55630.
Plaintiffs played on the Catholic University basketball team from 1997 to 2001, which won the 2001 Men’s Division III NCAA championship game. Defendant T3Media entered into an agreement with NCAA in 2012 to store, host and license the images in the NCAA photo library. The NCAA runs 90 championships in 24 sports across 3 divisions, and its library contains thousands of photographs of championship games, including some taken during the 2001 Men’s Division III championship game in which Plaintiffs participated.
T3Media sold non-exclusive licenses online for two years that allowed users to download copies of the NCAA photographs for personal use. Plaintiffs contended that such action was a violation of their California statutory right of publicity, California Civil Code § 3344, California common law right of publicity, and a violation of California Unfair Competition Law.
They filed a putative class action suit in June 2014 in the U.S. Central District Court of California on behalf of current and former NCAA athletes whose names, images and likeness had been used without their consent by Defendant for purpose of advertising, selling, or soliciting the purchase of these photographs.
The two-steps of an anti-SLAPP analysis
Defendant moved for a special motion to strike under California anti-SLAPP statute, Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16, which aims to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Courts follow two-steps when assessing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike: first the moving defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit arises from an act in furtherance of defendant’s right to free speech, as protected by the First Amendment. The second part of the assessment shifts the burden to plaintiff who must demonstrate a probability of prevailing on any of her claims.
T3Media had argued that the photographs at stake, and their captions, had been published in a public forum in connection with a matter of public interest. The district court agreed, finding that the photographs “fell within the realm of an issue of public interest” (District Court, at 1134).
This shifted the burden to Plaintiffs to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on any of their claims. Defendant claimed three affirmative defenses: (1) Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by federal copyright law, (2) were barred under the First Amendment, and (3) California right of publicity law exempts from liability use of likeness in connection with any news, public affairs, or sports broadcast or account.
The district court did not address the last two defenses as it found that Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the Copyright Act, because Plaintiffs asserted rights that fell within the subject matter of copyright, and granted Defendant special motion to strike. Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed.
As Plaintiffs had conceded that their suit arose from acts in furtherance of T3Media’s right to free speech, the Ninth Circuit only examined whether Plaintiffs indeed had demonstrated a reasonable probability of prevailing on their claims, and found they had not met that burden, as the Copyright Act preempted their claims.
The copyright preemption two-part test
Section 301 of the Copyright Act provides that common law or statutory state laws are preempted by rights “equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.” Courts in the Ninth Circuit use a two-part test to determine whether a state law claim is preempted the Copyright Act: the courts first decide if the subject matter of the state law is within the subject matter of copyright, and then determine if the rights asserted under state law are equivalent to the exclusive rights of the copyright holders, as determined by Section 106 of the Copyright Act. Parties only argued about the first part of the test.
The right of publicity claim is not preempted if its basis is the use of a likeness
Plaintiffs argued that their right of publicity claim was not preempted by the Copyright Act because publicity right claims protect the persona of an individual, which cannot be fixed in a tangible medium of expression (p. 12). They relied on Downing v. Abercrombie & Fitch, where the Ninth Circuit held that “the content of the protected right must fall within the subject matter of copyright” for the Copyright Act to preempt the state claim (Downing at 1003). Plaintiffs reasoned that their likeness is not with the subject matter of copyright and thus their state claim cannot be preempted by the Copyright Act.
Defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ likeness had been captured in an artistic work and had not been used on merchandise or in advertising. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit noted that “the “core” of the publicity right is the right not to have one’s identity used in advertising” (p. 13). The court of appeals concluded “that a publicity-right claim is not preempted when it targets non-consensual use of one’s name or likeness on merchandise or in advertising. But when a likeness had been captured in a copyrighted artistic visual work and the work itself is being distributed for personal use, a publicity-right claim interferes with the exclusive rights of the copyright holder, as is preempted by section 301 of the Copyright Act“ (p. 13)(emphasis of the Court).
The Ninth Circuit distinguished its Downing case from the case at stake, as the right of publicity claim in Downing is not about the publication of the photograph, but its use: Abercrombie used the surfer’s likeness in the catalog and had also sold reproductions of the tee-shirts worn by them in the photograph. The Ninth Circuit concluded that If the basis of the right of publicity claim is the use of a likeness in a photograph, the right of publicity claim is not preempted by copyright (p. 17).
When is a likeness misused in a work protected by copyright?
Therefore, the “crux of the issue” was whether the basis of the publicity-right claim was indeed to defend Plaintiff against a misuse of their likeness by Defendant. The court reasoned that Section 301 does not distinguish among different types of work protected by copyright, and that the pertinent issue was the way the likeness was used, not the type of the copyrighted work. In Downing, the basis of the publicity-right claim was not the publication of the photograph, but its use to advertise Abercrombie’s products and the creation of tee-shirts similar to those worn by Plaintiffs in the photograph, which were commercial exploitation of Plaintiff’s likeness (p. 19).
The Ninth Circuit noted further that it held in 2006, in Laws v. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., that “federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s voice when the entirety of the allegedly misappropriated vocal performance is contained within a copyrighted medium” (Laws at 1141). The Ninth Circuit also cited its Jules Jordan Video, Inc. v. 144942 Canada Inc. 2010 case, where it ruled that federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s name and persona based entirely on the misappropriation of DVDs of movies in which plaintiff performed and of which he owned the copyright. Plaintiff had objected to the use of his likeness on the covers of counterfeit DVDs, which the Ninth Circuit found to be “still shots” of the performance protected by copyright. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Plaintiff claim was a copyright claim, not a claim that his likeness has been used on an unrelated product or in advertising. For the Ninth Circuit, a likeness embodied in a work protected by copyright is misused if it is used on an unrelated product or in advertising.
Why did Plaintiffs’ claim fail
Plaintiffs’ attorney argued at the hearing that Defendant was selling the photographs “as poster art, as desktop backgrounds, as digital goods” (video at 11:36). This is an interesting argument, as the Ninth Circuit attaches great importance to the type of use of the likeness. However, it is the consumers who are choosing how to use the images, within the rights provided to them by the license, not the Defendant.
The District Court explained that ruling in favor of Plaintiffs “would destroy copyright holders’ ability to exercise their exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, effectively giving the subject of every photograph veto power over the artist’s rights under the Copyright Act and destroying the exclusivity of rights the Copyright Act aims to protect” (District Court at 1138).
Plaintiff’s attorney recognized during the hearing that non-commercial use of the photos would be acceptable (video at 13:36). When asked by the judges to give an example of non-commercial use, he suggested editorial use, in a student newspaper or a national newspaper. While the Court did thus not address the issue of free speech, several media organizations filed an amici curiae brief in support of Defendant, to ensure that “the right of publicity is not transformed into a right of censorship—one that can be used to prevent the dissemination of matters of public importance” (amici curiae brief p. 9).
Consumers on Fyre: Influencer Marketing and Recent Reactions of the United States Federal Trade Commission
By Catalina Goanta
Social media disruptions
Silicon Valley continues to change our world. Technology-driven innovations that are disseminated with the help of the Internet have met with great success. This success translates into heaps of followers, as one can see in the case of platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. However, it is the followers themselves who continually affect the purposes of these platforms. A good example in this sense is Youtube; what started out as an alternative channel for the sharing of low-resolution home videos soon became a place where users could actually create their own content professionally. If well-received, this content leads to real Internet phenomena, and eventually become monetized, via direct or indirect advertising. Individuals around the world now have access to their own TV-stations where they can attract funders and actually make a good living out of running their channels.
Online content creation raises issues that are similar to those in the sharing economy (e.g. Uber, Airbnb, etc.). On the one hand, online platforms connect individual content providers with viewers, in the same peer-to-peer fashion that AirBnB connects an apartment owner and a tourist. Given the service-orientation of both activities, provided they are monetized, a clear issue emerges: when does an individual stop being a peer? In other words, what does it mean to be a consumer in this environment? Relatedly, what legal standards apply to the process of creating such content?
The Fyre Fiasco
The Fyre Festival was supposed to be a luxury music festival scheduled for April and May 2017 in the Bahamas, organized by rapper Ja Rule and young entrepreneur Billy McFarland. The latter has made other business models catering to the rich, such as Magnises, a members-only benefits card programme aimed at wealthy millennials. However, instead of promised luxury and exclusivity, the Fyre Festival organizers could not provide its guests even with the most basic of amenities, ranging from accommodation to food and transport. This led to a massive social media fury, with tens of thousands of reposts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, showcasing the disastrous conditions that were far removed from the luxury advertisements and the matching price tags (participants paid up to $ 100,000 to attend the festival). Apart from criminal allegations of mail, wire and securities fraud, Fyre Media – Ja Rule and McFarland’s company – is already faing a $ 100,000,000 class action. In its Introduction, the complaint emphasizes that “[t]he festival’s lack of adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care created a dangerous and panicked situation among attendees—suddenly finding themselves stranded on a remote island without basic provisions—that was closer to ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’ than Coachella.” Because of the trust-building social media campaign Fyre Media had launched promote the event, festival-goers had no suspicion of fraud before they arrived at the event. Influencers such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Emily Ratajkowski were involved in making Instagram posts about the festival (without any proof of concept), and thereby endorsing the event and communicating to their millions of followers their trust in the Fyre Festival.
The Federal Trade Commission takes action
Influencer marketing is a grey area of consumer advertising. It entails companies reaching out to celebrities who benefit from a faithful following of individuals who they can easily sway to buy certain products. Monetizing a Youtube channel is a process requiring sustained effort, as channel owners will have to strike a balance between keeping their followers entertained and generating enough revenue for their activity. Popularity is correlated with the amount of earnings celebrities can make out of sponsored content.
What makes this into a great marketing technique is also what may hurt consumers the most. The trust-based relation between a celebrity and its fan-base appeals to marketers; it creates a more genuine story for their products or services. But trust is a fine line, and if a celebrity only endorses material things for money, it means they are not being honest with their audience, who might go and buy those products under mistaken assumptions.
The Federal Trade Commission labels these actions as endorsements, and is very clear that since such advertising tools can persuade consumers to engage in commercial transactions, endorsements must be truthful and not misleading. For this reason, the FTA created the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, soft rules designed to address the application of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act on unfair or deceptive acts or practices.
In the light of its guides and the Fyre fiasco, on 19 April the FTC notified more than 90 online influencers about the need for them to disclose their relations to the brands endorsed on social media. According to the Guides, if there is a “material connection” between an influencer and an advertiser which can influence the credibility of the messages posted on social media, the endorser must make this connection clear. In practice, that means adding different hashtags such as the hashtag #ad, by which the public understands that the celebrity in question has been paid to sing the praises of specific products. Still, not many celebrities seem to be bothered by this existing guideline, as only one post relating to Fyre Festival was actually tagged in a clear and conspicuous way to reveal the commercial interest behind the post itself.
Prior to the Fyre Festival debacle, in 2016 the FTC had filed a complaint against retailer Lord & Taylor, who paid more than 50 fashion influencers up to $4,000 to post photos of themselves in Instagram styling a specific dress and using the hashtag #DesignLab, without the disclosure of the material connection. The consumer deceit charges were eventually settled.
Are the guides enough to tackle the issue of endorsement? Perhaps there might be a deterrent effect with respect to aligning celebrities with legal standards, but the problem is wider if we consider the fact that it is not only celebrities advertising products on social media.
Just like Instagram, Youtube is a huge market for reviews on products or services relating to technology, games, clothing or make-up, just to name a few. Ordinary people become channel owners and post regular videos focusing on a particular theme. With time, some of these people reach quasi-stardom and become known names on the Internet. To take an example, NikkieTutorials, a successful make-up vlogger based in the Netherlands, has gained a total of 6,998,037 followers since joining Youtube in 2008, and her videos have been viewed 537,159,106 times so far. And while that might look like a lot, these numbers really fade into oblivion when compared to one of the most famous Youtubers of all time, the Swedish game vlogger PewDiePie. With a total following of around 55,538,695 individuals, his videos have collected an overwhelming total of 15,449,755,042 views ever since he joined Youtube in 2010 and earned approximately $7,400,000 in 2014 on the basis of this following. But these are only examples of very well established Youtubers; thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people are currently turning to Youtube to make a living, and in doing so, they seek to earn money from potential collaborators.
Youtube monetization often entails two main streams of revenue: AdSense and sponsorships. AdSense is a Youtube feature that allows channel owners to play ads in various formats before their own content, and their remuneration depends on the number of views their videos will score. Sponsorships are separate from the Youtube channel, in that external companies can contact a popular Youtuber and offer to pay that Youtuber for a sponsorship agreement. These agreements are likely to entail that the Youtuber endorses specific companies or products. As one of the most important features of Youtubers is that of being relatable, namely the feeling that Youtubers are normal people, just like their followers, channel owners will likely not want to openly disclose sponsorships. This creates a conflict of interests where the channel owner’s main activity is that of generating consumer opinions and reviews, while at the same time being secretive about the products that he or she is being paid to advertise.
On the basis of Section 5 of the FTC Act, such practices could be deemed to be unfair if they “cause or [are] likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.” However, this seems to be a test that is not applicable to the mundane low-value objects normally advertised online, which begs the question – should the FTC do something more to align social media advertisers with the public interests it upholds? If that is the case, it most certainly cannot do so alone and will need the willingness of the platforms enabling these new practices to properly address this growing problem.
U.S. District Court Dismisses a Sherman Act Class Action Lawsuit Brought by Former and Current Bureau of Prison Inmates for lack of Antitrust Injury
By Valerio Cosimo Romano
On 28 February 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (hereinafter, “District Court”) dismissed a putative class action lawsuit filed by current and released Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) inmates who purchased MP3 players and music or other audio files against Advanced Technologies Group LLC (“ATG”) and SanDisk Corporation (SanDisk”).
The plaintiffs were former and current BOP inmates. While incarcerated, plaintiffs purchased MP3 players on the BOP-operated facility’s “Commissary List” of items for sale, which included only those products that met special security features and had the ability to interface with BOP’s Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (“TRULINCS”). Indeed, in 2012 BOP and ATG signed a contract granting ATG the exclusive right to supply prison-restricted MP3 players and MP3 music to BOP inmates. In turn, ATG and SanDisk entered into an agreement for SanDisk to exclusively supply the prison-restricted MP3 players to ATG, pursuant to which only one brand and model of MP3 player was available for sale to inmates. The authorized device was not connected to the internet, but could only download approved music and audio books through TRULINCS. Inmates could purchase as many as 1,500 songs, which were stored on the MP3 player. When prisoners were released from BOP custody and they lost access to TRULINC, the MP3 players became inoperable and the prisoners lost access to the purchased audio files. Plaintiffs allege that this loss could only be avoided by buying a post-release MP3 player manufactured by SanDisk and sold by ATG. Also, according to plaintiffs, ATG will not restore any content to a third party player.
Plaintiffs therefore allege that defendants engaged in unlawful tying or a conspiracy to engage in unlawful tying in violation of §1 of the Sherman Act and in unlawful monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy to monopolize in violation of §2 of the Sherman Act. More specifically, Plaintiffs assert that Defendants unlawfully tied the purchase of prison-restricted MP3 players to the purchase of a post-release MP3 player, and further allege that defendants’ conduct has exclusionary and anticompetitive effects with respect to the market for post-release MP3 players. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs lack antitrust standing.
First, The District Court recalled the relevant factors for the establishment of standing to bring an antitrust action, as articulated by the Supreme Court in Associated Gen. Contractors of Calif. and summarized by the Sixth Circuit in Southhaven Land. These factors are: (i) the causal connection between the antitrust violation and the harm to the plaintiff and the intent of the defendant to cause that harm, with neither factor alone sufficient to confer standing; (ii) whether the plaintiff’s alleged injury is of the type for which the antitrust laws were intended to provide redress; (iii) the directness of the injury, which addresses the concerns that liberal application of standing principles might produce speculative claims; (iv) the existence of more direct victims of the alleged antitrust violations; and (v) the potential for duplicative recovery or complex apportionment of damages.
Second, the District Court held that, despite the fact that the factors have to be balanced, antitrust injury is a necessary component, and, therefore, where a plaintiff fails to establish an antitrust injury, the court must dismiss the complaint as a matter of law.
Third, the District Court ruled that an injury will not qualify as an antitrust injury unless it is attributable to an anticompetitive aspect of the practice under scrutiny. In this sense, adhering to the principles established in Standfacts Credit Servs., the District Court held that no cognizable antitrust injury could be identified where the alleged injury is a “byproduct of the regulatory scheme” or federal law rather than of the defendant’s business practices, and in this case, the injury stems from BOP policy rather than anticompetitive conduct by Defendants.
In light of the above, the District Court concluded that antitrust injury was lacking to support Plaintiff’s Sherman Act claims against defendants. Therefore, it granted motion to dismiss the defendants’ antitrust complaint as well as additional common law and state law claims.
By Marie-Andrée Weiss
On 24 January 2017, Judge Abrams from the Southern District of New York (SDNY) granted a motion to dismiss from a video director who had been sued for violation of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act by an actress featured in an anti-street-harassment video he had directed, and which he later licensed for use in an TGI Friday’s appetizers advertisement. The case is Roberts v. Bliss, No. 15-CV-10167.
Plaintiff had been hired to appear in “10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman,” (the video) which was filmed by hidden camera to show the amount of catcalling directed at women walking on the streets. The actress was filmed for 10 hours walking in the streets of Manhattan, while men commented on her appearance and asked for her phone number. The footage was edited to a 1.56 minute video, which ended with a message urging viewers to donate to a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting street harassment, which had commissioned the video.
The video was directed and produced by Defendant Rob Bliss. He posted the video on YouTube in October 2014, and it went viral within 24 hours, receiving 10 million views in the first 24 hours of its posting. It has now been seen some 44 million times. After the video went viral, Bliss used it on his professional website to advertise his services. In February 2015, he licensed the video to a Colorado advertising agency, which used it to create two ads for TGI Friday’s, a fifteen-second ad and a thirty-second ad (the ad).
The ad starts with a black screen with the text, ”Nobody likes a catcaller,” and then shows clips of the video, with oversized pictures of new TGI Friday’s appetizers entirely covering Plaintiff’s body. This gives the impression that men on the street are expressing their admiration for mozzarella sticks or potato skins. The ad ends with another black screen which reads: “But who can blame someone for #AppCalling?”
Plaintiff sued Bliss, his company, and the non-profit which had originally commissioned the ad, claiming that the ad misleadingly implied that she had endorsed the ad and the appetizers, in violation of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, which forbids false endorsements. She also claimed that her right of publicity under New York law had been violated. Claims against the non-profit were later dropped.
The Section 43(a) false endorsement claim fails
Plaintiff claimed that she had not licensed her identity or persona to be used in the ads and would not have done so if offered to license it. She claimed that the ad violates Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, as it “depicted [her] persona and conveyed the false impression to a substantial group of viewers… that she had participated in, authorized or endorsed the [ad]” (Complaint, p. 12-13).
While right of publicity laws generally forbid using a person’s likeness for commercial purposes, the Lanham Act, which prohibits the unauthorized use of personal identity in endorsements or advertising, may also be used to that effect. Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) prohibits:
“us[ing] in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which… is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person, or… in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person’s goods, services, or commercial activities.”
Judge Abrams cited Burck v. Mars, Inc., a 2008 SDNY case, which enumerated the elements of a false endorsement claim under the Lanham Act, which require that “the defendant, (1) in commerce, (2) made a false or misleading representation of fact (3) in connection with goods or services (4) that is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of the goods or services”.
The ad did not use Plaintiff’s persona
Plaintiff did not claim that her name had been used, but instead her “persona,” which indeed could fall within the scope of Section 43(a), as its broad terms may indeed protect persona.
Judge Abrams examined what exactly is a “persona” and noted that it is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others.” He also quoted two 1992 Ninth Circuit cases recognizing persona. In Waits v. Frito Lay, a case about the unauthorized imitation of Tom Waits‘ voice, the court held that an artist’s distinctive voice and style was part of his persona. In White v. Samsung Elecs. Am. Inc., the court recognized that Vanna White had a right to her individual style and stance within the context of the set of Wheel of Fortune, where she had become famous; therefore, an ad could not use a robot in a blonde wig and pink dress on a set resembling Wheel of Fortune.
In this case, Judge Abrams was not convinced by Plaintiff’s claim “because neither she, nor any representation of her, her image, or her persona, appear in the TGI Friday’s advertisement, and the ad contains no false or misleading statement suggesting that she endorsed TGI Friday’s or its appetizers.” He noted further that “the superimposed renderings of appetizers cover [Plaintiff’s] entire body.”
Judge Abrams also noted that Plaintiff could not claim that she is so associated with her performance that the ad falsely implies that she endorsed the appetizers, because the Second Circuit held in Oliveira v. Frito Lays, Inc. that a signature performance, which is one in which a “widespread audience associates with the performing artist,” cannot be claimed as a trademark. In Oliveira, the Court found that Astrud Gilberto, the singer who first sang The Girl From Ipanema, could not claim her performance as a trademark and thus claim her rights had been infringed by the use of her performance in an ad without her permission. Judge Abrams noted that TGI Friday’s had purchased a license for the video, just as Frito Lays had purchased a license to use The Girl from Ipanema in the potato chip ad. Judge Abrams concluded that the ad did not falsely imply that Plaintiff endorsed the products, noting again that Plaintiff is not seen at all in the ads.
There is no likelihood of confusion as to Plaintiff’s sponsorship because the ad is parody
Judge Abrams also found that Plaintiff did not prove that consumers were likely to be confused as to her sponsorship of the ad. He quoted Burck, where the SDNY found that if a trademark is parodied, it may be “enough to result in no confusion under the statutory likelihood of confusion analysis.” Thus, if there is a parody, there is probably not consumer confusion. This had also been noted in January 2016 by Judge Furman of the SDNY in the Louis Vuitton v. My Other Bag case, which was recently affirmed by the Second Circuit (see here for a former discussion of the case in the TTLF newsletter). In that case, Judge Furman discussed the parody of a trademarks at length, and observed that “a parody clearly indicates to the ordinary observer that the defendant is not connected in any way with the owner of the… trademark.” In Bliss, Judge Abrams found the ad to be “a clear parody” of the video, which “in no way suggests that [Plaintiff] was championing the product used to mock the video for its own commercial benefit.”
The right of publicity claim was not addressed by the federal court
Since Judge Abrams dismissed the federal law claim which had justified federal jurisdiction, he declined to review the New York right of publicity claim.
New York’s right of publicity law is codified in New York Civil Rights Law, Section 50-5, and protects the right to privacy of a person if a “person, firm or corporation” uses her “name, portrait or picture” for “advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade… without having first obtained the written consent of such person”.
Would Plaintiff be more successful in her claim that her persona had been used without her permission in a New York court? As noted in a previous TTLF newsletter, some state’s right of publicity laws protect personas, such as the Alabama Right of Publicity Act which protects the right of publicity of individuals “in any Indicia of Identity,” and thus extend its protection to persona. This is not the case in New York.
Actress Lindsay Lohan recently argued that the protection of New York’s right of publicity includes her persona, which she claimed is composed of various elements such as a bikini, shoulder-length blonde hair, jewelry, a cell phone, sunglasses, a loose white top, and her signature ‘peace sign’ pose. he Appellate division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed her claim on 1 September 2016, because New York law only protects against unauthorized use of a person’ name, portrait, or picture— not a persona. However, in February 2017 the New York Court of Appeals accepted review of this case, and so may affirm or modify the narrow scope of the New York’s right of publicity.
Plaintiff has appealed her federal case and is likely to pursue her New York right of publicity case. Regardless, this case highlights the dangers of performing without a written contract. Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that she agreed to participate in the project without being compensated because the video had been presented to her as a public service announcement against street harassment. She received death and rape threats after appearing in the original video. This case brings in mind the Garcia v. Google case (discussed in a previous TTLF newsletter here) where an actress unsuccessfully claimed copyright in her performance. There are no neighboring rights provided to performers in U.S. law, unlike, say, French law, which grants performers a droit voisin,, a sort of property right over their interpretation of the work protected by copyright . In a statement, Plaintiff wrote that “the rights of all actors and other creative artists are increasingly threatened by those who profit commercially from their content without paying for it.” Should U.S. law give performers a neighboring right?