Showing posts with label derivative works. Show all posts
Showing posts with label derivative works. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part III)


Movie Poster for Van Helsing
The tagline for the 2004 movie Van Helsing was "Adventure Lives Forever." From an intellectual property perspective, it would appear that some fictional characters may try to live forever.

Trademark protection of a fictional character provides the owner with the exclusive right to use that character in connection with goods and services, as well as the right to prevent the unauthorized use of the character in connection with goods and services of infringing third parties.


The notion is that US trademark law serves to protect the public from confusion arising from confusingly similar marks.
But what about trademark law protecting the characteristics of fictional characters that are in the public domain as a matter of copyright law (e.g., Count Dracula or Sherlock Holmes)?  Theoretically, it would seem like trademark protection should not be available for any characters that are fully described in the public domain work. The reality is not that simple.

If a derivative character is developed, based upon the character described in public domain materials and is used in commerce, it is protectable as a trademark in its own right.

A concrete example is that the general features of Count Dracula are free to emulate because they are in the public domain, as the character was contained within Bram Stoker’s novel from 1897.  Stoker's book was loosely based upon the historical character of Vlad the Impaler.

Innumerable commercial variants of Stoker's Count Dracula were spawned in the century that followed, leading to a complex legal landscape.

General Mills' Count Chocula Cereal
For example, Count Chocula is a well-known, trademarked character developed by General Mills in 1971, in connection with breakfast cereals. Count Chocula is a highly stylized caricature of Count Dracula, made suitable for children. General Mills saw fit to register a federal trademark on the name and character, asserting that the design was for a character in the category of” supernatural, fictional or legendary characters; Paul Bunyan; Pied Piper; Robin Hood; Sherlock Holmes…etc.”

Consequently, a conundrum arises. If a third party were to develop a new design for a cereal that included a fictional character based entirely on the Count Dracula described in Bram Stoker’s public domain book, he may still be likely to cause consumer confusion with Count Chocula, and in doing so, violate General Mills' trademark. The strange outcome is that a character that should be free under copyright law to use, may not be so free under trademark law.

Along the same lines, Abraham Van Helsing was described in Stoker's Dracula novel. In 1994, actor Hugh Jackman played Van Helsing in a major motion picture.  In 2007, the United States Patent and Trademark Office officially allowed "VAN HELSING" to become eligible for a trademark on a wide variety of action figures, toys and games, and published that mark for opposition.


Yet another example is the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper has been a character fully described as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. The legendary figure had become fodder for nearly a dozen short stories written by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century.  Every one of these works has passed into the public domain, as a matter of US copyright law.
The Pied Piper Throughout History

Yet, Dell Publishing Company was able to successfully register "Pied Piper" for "a series of childrens' books" in 1981, a registration that continues to be in full force and effect on the Principal Register of the US Patent and Trademark Office.
  
Further complicating matters, as long as trademarks are used in commerce, they can be valid and enforced in perpetuity. That result means that hundreds of years after the text describing a fictional character has passed into the public domain, a company that develops a commercial character based on the public domain work, could still claim a successful monopoly.

Six hundred years after the Pied Piper was first described in published poems and books, an author could not write about him in a children's book today, as the Dell Publishing Company was able to receive a perpetual, federally registered trademark on his name for children's books.

As discussed in previous posts, it is not entirely clear that once a copyrighted work passes into the public domain, the fictional characters developed therein become entirely free for public consumption without legal controversy.

Indeed, related and derivative intellectual property rights can continue to muddy the waters, leading to complex and strange consequences. This situation occurs because the landscape of US intellectual property law is complex, and different regimes are designed to serve different purposes.

US copyright law protects the expression of ideas, but not the underlying ideas themselves. The notion is that a limited monopoly is granted on a tangible expression of an idea, in order to foster a robust environment for authors, painters and other creative endeavors in which they (and their heirs) are appropriately rewarded. Once that monopoly has lapsed, the underlying texts pass into the public domain, giving the public an opportunity to utilize a catalog of freely available works. For example, Mozart or Beethoven's music can generally be played by anyone without fear of a lawsuit by their heirs. William Shakespeare's plays can be reproduced or performed, without fear of paying a royalty.

Further, in literature, fictional characters within a literary work are presumed to be simply ideas unless they are sufficiently developed to legally constitute elements of expression protectable under copyright law.

However, US trademark law may protect the names, physical appearance, catchphrases, and certain other elements of fictional characters, provided that they are used on goods or services, identify and distinguish the source of the goods or services from those of others, and are either inherently distinctive or have acquired secondary meaning (i.e., meaning in the consuming public’s mind as a source identifier for the relevant goods or services).

In conclusion, as we have seen, just because a fictional character was once described in a text that has passed into the public domain as a matter of copyright law, does not end the inquiry. In fact, it is only the beginning, as related rights and derivative works, as well as trademark usage can affect the public's right to freely borrow from, adapt or use those fictional characters.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Does Copyright Law Cease Protecting a Fictional Character? (Part II)



A previous post discussed litigation related to the current status of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's copyright claims to the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, given that several works had passed into the public domain as a matter of US copyright law.

Below is a further discussion about the power of US copyright law to protect fictional characters that have lapsed into the public domain, but which have been developed through subsequent film adaptations and through the creation of "derivative works."

These legal issues are best illustrated by the murky copyright status of the iconic characters in the Wizard of Oz.

In May 1900, author L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a fantasy children's novel that included illustrations by W.W. Denslow.  The book includes the familiar story describing how Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion traveled down the yellow brick road together to see the Wizard so Dorothy could return home. Notably, in the original 1900 text, Dorothy's slippers are silver.

Baum's seminal book was famously adapted to movie screens in the now iconic 1939 masterpiece film starring Judy Garland. This film made revolutionary use of Technicolor, which inspired a change to the color of Dorothy's slippers to ruby red.  Indeed, Dorothy's red slippers would later become enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, as a testament to the importance that this particular prop played in American culture.

Although the children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz lost its US copyright protection in 1956, only the original novel by Baum and illustrations by Denslow have entered the public domain.

However, all the later-created derivative works based on the novel are still eligible for independent copyright protection.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a "derivative work" as "[a] work based upon one or more preexisting works" or "[a] work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship."  Therefore, the 1939 film in which Dorothy wore ruby red slippers is a derivative work that is still protected by US copyright, valuable rights currently held by Warner Brothers.

Slight differences between the public domain novel and the still-copyrighted movie are not an academic issue to those seeking to make any adaptation of the Wizard of Oz plotline without a license from Warner Brothers.  And that includes Disney.

Indeed, just last week, Disney aired a brand new adaptation of the original Wizard of Oz called the Wizard of Dizz.  In this version, Mickey Mouse and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse troupe are recast as the characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with Minnie Mouse as Dorothy, and Professor Von Drake as the Wizard.

While the Disney adaptation is potentially protected free speech as a form of parody, a subtle but important detail is the fact that the ruby red slippers worn by Minnie Mouse are replaced by green shoes.

Was this detail an act of literary license on Disney's part, or part of a clever legal strategy to avoid a claim of copyright infringement? 


In their most recent squabbles over this issue, Warner Brothers took the legal position that the characters from the film had so altered public perception, that virtually ANY unauthorized use of the characters would violate the film studio's copyright.


Subsequently, additional unauthorized renditions including Oz the Great and Powerful starring James Franco, stirred up even more controversy, as Disney riled Warner Brothers by filing for trademarks on that name.

In conclusion, when fictional characters are first described in a text that falls into the public domain, the status of the original copyright does not necessarily make these characters free for the public to use without license.

Further, in Part III, we will discuss how trademarks and trade dress can theoretically create a perpetual "brand" surrounding a character that otherwise would be in the public domain as a matter of copyright law.


Friday, September 6, 2013

'Deep Throat' Makers Cannot Halt Release of Unauthorized 'Lovelace' Biopic


Images Courtesy of Radius-TWC

Entertainment Weekly and Variety report that the recent Weinstein/Millennium film “Lovelace” appears to be clear of a possible preliminary injunction that could have kept the film from being released in theaters.

The producers of the film were sued for copyright and trademark infringement in New York federal district court by Arrow Productions, the owner of the copyrights and trademarks on the original adult "Deep Throat" franchise, which starred Linda Lovelace.

The recently-released biopic film stars Amanda Seyfried as Lovelace, a fragile woman who becomes an infamous porn star seemingly happy with her decisions, but who eventually breaks free from her husband and discloses the truth about her treatment in order to prevent other women from getting similarly exploited.

According to the Complaint, the producers used the name "Lovelace" and several minutes of copyrighted material from the 1972 adult film "Deep Throat," without permission. "In fact, the title 'Lovelace' derives its market appeal entirely from decades of cultural cache embodied in the trademarked name Linda Lovelace. … Rather than negotiating licenses for Deep Throat IP, rather than deferring to Arrow’s vision for the Deep Throat brand, Defendants have simply taken what they wanted and crossed their fingers.”

However, despite Arrow's characterization of the producers as having "tak[en] several minutes of copyrighted material" without permission, the truth is not that simple.

Arrow claims that the copyright infringement arises from a "re-creation of a short scene" and a "brief re-enactment of the filming of scenes of 'Deep Throat'," not wholesale theft of copyrighted footage.

Consequently, Arrow alleges, these unauthorized reenactments constitute "derivative works" of the original copyrighted material, which Arrow owns.

Furthermore, Arrow alleges that the value of the "Deep Throat brand" has been "decimated," because it did not approve the film's depictions of exploitation of the film's protagonist.  It is not clear if any consumers have been confused into believing that Arrow endorsed or sponsored the film.

Intellectual property law is not so clearly on the side of Arrow.  Performing a "re-creation" of an event does not necessarily constitute copyright infringement, simply because that event was filmed.

Arrow's Complaint itself alleged that the 1972 release of the film Deep Throat "was a watershed moment for American culture."

Re-enacting an event does not necessarily violate copyright laws.  A reenactment that borrows too heavily from copyrighted material could infringe, however.  For example, if the reenacted footage replicated the use of a copyrighted script line by line, it could infringe the screenwriter's rights. Furthermore, copyright law permits a copyright owner to control "public performance" of his work.

A "free speech/fair use" defense could be successfully asserted by Lovelace's producers, based on the argument that the derivative use made was transformative, in that it commented on the event by adding some additional material or perspective.

Consequently, application of this defense would permit some degree of interpretative reenactment as a form of social commentary on the underlying factual events that took place during the filming of Deep Throat.

For now, at least, the film's producers have been able to release the movie, but since the Complaint (embedded below) has not yet been dismissed or resolved, further litigation appears possible.