A De Minimis Defense Grows in Brooklyn: Display of Street Art in Action Movie Not Infringement

Written by Eleanor M. Lackman and Theresa B. Bowman 

On March 30, 2020, in Blaney, et al., v. XYZ Films, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed copyright infringement and false endorsement claims arising out of the depiction of a well-known Brooklyn mural in the dystopian, thriller motion picture Bushwick.  While the defendants undeniably filmed, and thus reproduced, the mural in the motion picture, the court held that such copying was both de minimis and fair use and therefore not copyright infringement.  In dismissing the false endorsement claims, the court determined that the defendants’ use of the mural created little risk of confusion that the murals’ creator and subject, both peace activists, endorsed the defendants’ motion picture.

The decision bolsters the ability of movie and TV production companies to depict, accurately and briefly, iconic or well-known community sites as part of background “establishing shots.”  Meanwhile, the outcome might inject some uncertainty into whether artists can pursue licensing revenue for works depicted in those films and TV shows.

Continue reading “A De Minimis Defense Grows in Brooklyn: Display of Street Art in Action Movie Not Infringement”

Freedom of Squeak: The Ninth Circuit Finds First Amendment Protection For Parody Dog Toy

Written by Marc E. Mayer and Theresa B. Bowman

In VIP Products v. Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc., No. 18-16012 (9th Cir. March 31, 2020), the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held this week that a rubber dog toy designed to resemble a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Black Label Tennessee Whiskey — the “Bad Spaniels Silly Squeaker” — is an “expressive work” and therefore entitled to interpose a First Amendment defense against the whiskey company’s trademark infringement claims.

The lawsuit began in 2014 when Jack Daniel’s demanded that VIP Products stop selling the Bad Spaniels on trademark infringement grounds.  The manufacturer filed suit asking an Arizona District Court to weigh in and determine whether the whiskey bottle was entitled to trademark protection at all.  Jack Daniel’s responded with trademark infringement and trademark dilution claims, arguing that the dog toy diluted the commercial power, meaning and value of its brand by tarnishing what the image of the iconic whiskey bottle represents.  The District Judge agreed with Jack Daniel’s that there was a high likelihood of consumer confusion between the products and ordered VIP Products to stop making and selling the Bad Spaniels toy. Continue reading “Freedom of Squeak: The Ninth Circuit Finds First Amendment Protection For Parody Dog Toy”

Court Sides With Video Game Producer Over The Use Of Athlete’s Tattoos

Written by Sofia Castillo

On March 26, 2020, the district court for the Southern District of New York issued a landmark ruling in a case closely followed by the film, video game, sports and tattoo industries. Where for several years the only direct precedent on the issue of expressive tattoos in expressive works was limited to early rulings in cases like that involving The Hangover or relegated to settlements, Solid Oak Sketches, LLC v. 2K Games, Inc. firmly resolved all doubt. In the ruling, the court granted the defendant video game publishers’ motion for summary judgment on three separate grounds, finding that the defendants’ depiction of basketball superstars’ tattoos in a “NBA2K” video game was: (1) a “de minimis” use, (2) allowed under the players’ implied license given by the tattoo artists, and (3) a fair use. This decision comes almost exactly two years after Judge Swain denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims.

On the first ground, the court looked to precedent regarding “de minimis” use principles in other contexts. Ultimately, the defendants’ video evidence convinced the court that NBA2K’s depiction of tattoos on basketball superstars LeBron James, Kenyon Martin and Eric Bledsoe (and none of the other over 400 available players in the game) was “de minimis” and therefore “no reasonable trier of fact could find the Tattoos as they appear in NBA 2K were substantially similar to the Tattoo designs licensed to Solid Oak.” The court found that the small size and distorted angles of the tattoos’ display as part of the game play was “indiscernible to the average game user,” making the plaintiff’s copyright expression insufficiently observable to rise to the level of an actionable taking. Continue reading “Court Sides With Video Game Producer Over The Use Of Athlete’s Tattoos”