Copy-wrong

If a monkey takes a picture in the woods, can the monkey claim the copyright?  Trademark and copyright laws can get pretty sticky and not a little zany.  Stay tuned for a list of words and phrases that will cost you a lot of money if you use them.

Photographer David Slater argued that he held copyright since he’d engineered the entire situation. The Wikimedia Foundation, which had been hosting the photo in their image library despite Slater’s objections, maintained that the picture was public domain. The US Copyright Office stated that works created by a non-human, such as a photograph taken by a monkey, are not copyrightable. Trying to recoup lost income, Slater published a book of wildlife photography, including the monkey selfie. That’s where it should have ended. Then PETA decided to get involved.

You can’t copyright a word or phrase, but you could trademark it. The most famous case is sports announcer Michael Buffer, who currently makes more money from his phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” than he does from actually announcing the matches. Dave Hester from A&E’s “reality” show Storage Wars not only has a trademark on the word “YUUUP!” but is actually involved in a bitter legal battle over it with rapper Trey Songz. A certain real estate developer turned TV personality wanted to trademark the phrase “you’re fired.” The application was denied for a few reasons, the least of which is that it was an established and commonly used phrase. A similar thing happened when carmaker Volvo unsuccessfully tried to trademark “Drive Safely.” The USPTO reasoned that the slogan was just a good suggestion that we should all follow.

Another phrase that sounds too common to trademark is “one more thing,” but that didn’t deter the Swatch watch company from applying for it or Apple from attempting to block them. Apple and Swatch would also find themselves in court when Swatch blocked Apple from trademarking “iWatch” as they already had an “iSwatch” product.

Imagine if Hugh Heffner had tried to forbid anyone from using the word “playboy” because it was the name of his magazine. That’s precisely what Tim Langdell of UK studio Edge Games tried to do. Langdell claimed he owned the rights to the word “edge” in anything pertaining to the video game industry. He managed to make some other developers knuckle under, such as the game that launched the Soulcaliber series. But he bit off more than he could chew when he took on the very big fish of Electronic Arts. The Banner Saga found their trademark application formally objected to by another developer. Was it the makers of another fantasy RPG? No, it was Candy Crush Saga, despite the fact that Banner had no candy and Candy Crush had no saga.

Have you ever noticed all the ads in late January talk about the “big game”? Why don’t they come out and say it? Because the NFL owns “Super Bowl.” “We take these issues very seriously and aren’t afraid to pursue infringements vigorously,” says Anastasia Danias, the NFL’s vp of intellectual property. It’s the same sort of scenario with the Olympics. The USOC owns the trademarks to Olympic, Go For The Gold, Tokyo 2020, Team USA, et al. You’ll get the same treatment from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science. You can’t say Oscar, Oscar Night, or Academy Awards, though you can say Awards of Merit, which is the actual name of the statues.

Am I worried about being sued? Well, I wasn’t until you asked. Just kidding, I’m covered by the principle of “fair use,” which provides certain exceptions to copyright. Most fair use analysis falls into two categories: commentary and criticism or parody.

All of the music on my podcast comes either from the YouTube music library or the composer extraordinaire Kevin MacLeod at incompotech.com.

You’re How Old?!


In the age of bigger, better, faster, more, it’s easy to default to thinking that we invented everything, that the complex things that make up our lives couldn’t have existed in the times we view as primitive. Oh, how wrong we are.