Hasbro, Inc. recently made headlines when it received a federal trademark registration for the scent of its Play-Doh product. While it isn’t impossible to register a trademark for a scent, it is rare, and it is a reminder of the many options business owners have to create connections with customers (and even make a big splash while doing it).

Scent trademarks – and other marks like tastes, colors, sounds, product designs, textures, and even moving images – are part of a larger family of marks often referred to as non-traditional trademarks. The USPTO has issued registrations on all kinds of non-traditional trademarks, including the scent of strawberry for toothbrushes, the “Nationwide is on your side” song for insurance agencies, the word “yummm” sung at the end of Red Robin restaurant commercials, and even a cherry scent for synthetic lubricants.

Registering a non-traditional trademark can help a business protect the exact ways it connects with its consumers. As businesses think more about these non-traditional marks, they may find more ways to set their goods and services apart from their competitors’. These marks can be powerful marketing tools in their own rights as well. For example, Hasbro has earned heaps of free press for its scent registration, and even markets the scent on its own as part of a perfume.

Part of the reason these kinds of trademark registrations are so rare is that they are difficult to get. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that features of a product are never inherently distinctive. As a result, trademark applicants seeking to protect non-traditional trademarks have a high hurdle to clear to show that the scent, taste, color, etc. has acquired distinctiveness and functions as a trademark. Is the purported mark a functional element of the product? Are there third parties using the same mark? Has the mark been used for a long time? Has the mark (not just the underlying product) been advertised by the business or reported on by the media? These are just some of the questions a business must ask about its purported non-traditional marks.

In the end, Hasbro was able to clear this hurdle and was granted a trademark registration for “a scent of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.” Will this registration redefine Hasbro or its Play-Doh product? Probably not. But non-traditional trademarks could help your business mold its marketing efforts into something special, and should be considered as part of any overall branding strategy.

Animal selfie enthusiasts rejoice – your pet cannot sue you for copyright infringement for reproducing their pictures online under the Copyright Act of 1976.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) has now answered the concern that has (obviously) been at the forefront of every legal professional’s mind – whether a selfie-taking monkey can sue humans, corporations, and companies for copyright infringement.  The answer – (deep breath) – is no.

The copyright case at issue, Naruto, a crested macaque v. David John Slater, et al., Case No. 15-cv-4324, centered on the allegation that Naruto (a seven-year old Indonesian crested macaque) was the true author of a series of “selfies” allegedly taken by Naruto in 2011 with a camera owned by photographer David Slater and thereafter reproduced by Mr. Slater and certain companies.  The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), who brought the lawsuit on Naruto’s behalf, claimed that Mr. Slater and others violated the Copyright Act by falsely claiming to be the author of the “monkey selfies” and reproducing those images for profit.  In response, Mr. Slater argued that Naruto lacked constitutional “standing” to sue and that animals cannot sue under the Copyright Act.  The district court dismissed the action, agreeing that Naruto could not sue under the Copyright Act, but declining to assess whether Naruto has the constitutional “standing” to sue.  PETA appealed but settled the lawsuit with Mr. Slater while the appeal was pending.

Undeterred by the settlement, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal.  Sharply criticizing PETA for bringing the lawsuit and then settling it without Naruto’s participation, the Ninth Circuit found that binding circuit precedent forced the court to accept that animals have constitutional standing to assert claims in the federal courts.  The Ninth Circuit, however, was not about to throw open the courthouse doors to all animal-plaintiffs.  The Ninth Circuit found that under the plain text of the Copyright Act Naruto (and all other nonhumans) could not file copyright infringement lawsuits.  In fact, the Ninth Circuit was so adamant about this conclusion that it awarded Mr. Slater his attorneys’ fees incurred in opposing the appeal.

Thus ended the saga of the monkey selfie seen ‘round the world – not with new, ground-breaking animal rights law, but with the strict interpretation of a federal statute, adherence to the doctrine of stare decisis, and a plea that the prior Ninth Circuit law on an animal’s constitutional standing be reexamined.

One little-publicized part of the new tax law (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017) may negatively affect the value of some patents and other intellectual property.  It does so by changing the tax treatment of income from sales of “patents, models and secret formulas or processes” from capital gains to ordinary income.

Prior to the amendment of Tax Code Section 1221(a)(3), income from sales of (1) “patents, models and secret formulas or processes,” (2) held by the IP creator, (3) for more than one year, was taxed at the capital gains rate.  This resulted in lower tax than the ordinary income tax rate that applied to other types of IP, such as copyrights, literary, musical, and artistic compositions.  Congress has now taken this tax advantage away.

The change in the law affects those that sell or license IP in the “primary market” only —in other words, the original creators of the IP.  It generally does not affect those that have paid to own the IP, including the IP creators’ employers.

There still remains an exception under Tax Code Section 1235 providing for lower tax on sales and licensing of all rights to patents, secret formulas and trade names (but only these types of IP).  For other types of IP, adjustments in sale prices and license royalties will need to compensate for the higher tax under the new law.

Our tax and IP groups can help you assess the new law’s impact on these valuable assets.

In 2015, a California jury decided that the mega-hit “Blurred Lines” by Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Clifford Harris (a/k/a “T.I.”) infringed the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s song, “Got To Give It Up.”  The jury awarded Gaye’s heirs $7.4 million.  Last week, a panel of the federal court of appeals in San Francisco affirmed the judgment in 2-1 split decision.  Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56880 (9th Cir. March 21, 2018).

The appeals court decision confirmed what this blog argued just after the 2015 jury verdict:  that the most significant part of the “Blurred Lines” case is that a jury – not a judge – made the call.

That is somewhat unusual in a copyright case, especially a case involving music.  In copyright law, the question whether one work infringes another often turns on whether the allegedly infringing work is “substantially similar” to the previous work.  Courts often view the “substantial similarity” question as so clear or one-sided that there is no need for a jury to decide the issue (for our lawyer-readers:  i.e., summary judgment).  The main question in Williams v. Gaye was whether “Blurred Lines” was “substantially similar” to “Got To Give It Up.”  Unusually, the trial judge held a jury trial where the jury was presented with audio and expert testimony concerning the purported similarities/dissimilarities between the two works.  The jury ruled for the Gayes.

Courts hesitate to overturn jury verdicts, and this case proved no exception: the appeals court deferred to the jury’s findings without stating its own opinion whether “Blurred Lines” actually infringed Gaye’s composition, while providing little new legal guidance on the question of infringement of musical works.

This decision may not be the end of the case.  A strident dissenting opinion believed the case never should have gone to a jury and that the Gayes’ claim should have been rejected as a legal matter, and it is possible the entire court of appeals or the Supreme Court could review the case.  Failing further review, however, the “Blurred Lines” case heralds more jury decision-making in these “blurry” disputes.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) affords an invaluable safe harbor to online “service providers” (as that term is very broadly defined in the DMCA) for copyright infringement claims arising from user-generated content posted to a service provider’s website.  To be eligible, service providers must satisfy several criteria.  For example, service providers must implement a policy for the termination of repeat infringers and comply with certain “standard technical measures” used by copyright owners to identify or protect copyrighted works.   Service providers must also designate an agent to receive notice of claimed infringement.  Although service providers wishing to take advantage of this safe harbor have traditionally designated their agents through a written submission to the United States Copyright Office, in May 2017, the Copyright Office issued a final rule requiring service providers to register their designated agents (or in the case of those already registered, re-register) through a new online system.  The deadline to register with the new online system is December 31, 2017.  The final rule also requires the designation be renewed every three years.  Failure to register and renew will result in a loss of eligibility for the DMCA safe harbor, a risk no service provider should take.