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Trademark

Is That Legal – Apple Store Flash Mob

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

(cc) Devon Christopher Adams

This past weekend, Improv AZ organized a flash mob that invaded the Apple Store in Scottsdale. Our friends at Brand X Custom T-Shirts made ours shirts that resembled the Apple Store employees’. Each participant wore a royal blue shirt with a heart on it that had a leaf coming out of the top and a bite taken out of the side. Our group of about 30 participants walked into the store in small groups and proceeded to browse around for about 30 minutes, looking at and buying merchandise. We never represented ourselves as Apple employees, but if someone mistook us for an employee, we answered their question if we could or directed them to an Apple employee. If anyone asked us what we doing, we denied any implications that were acting in conjunction with each other. At the end of our invasion, we walked out calmly, took some pictures in front of the store, and left.

Did We Trespass?
No. The Apple Store is open to do business with the public. In legal terms, we were invitees. If we were asked to leave and we refused, then we would have been trespassing.

But You Weren’t There To Shop . . .
And how many times have you gone into a store just to look around with no intention of buying anything? At least one person in our group purchased something and several others looked at products that they were possibly interested in buying in the future. Additionally, we did not do anything that interfered with other shoppers’ ability to shop or employees’ ability to work.

Did We Commit Disorderly Conduct? Unlawful Assembly?
No. You have to behave pretty badly for those charges to stick. Peacefully walking through a business that is open to the public in matching shirts is not illegal. We weren’t rioting, fighting, disrupting business, making unreasonable noise, or refusing a lawful order to disperse.

Our Shirt vs. Their Shirt (cc) Devon Christopher Adams

Did We Commit Trademark Infringement?
Apple uses the apple with the bite out of it as a symbol of the source of its goods. Our apple-heart was not indicative of the source of any goods or services. There’s no trademark infringement because we weren’t claiming anything as a trademark.

Did We Commit Copyright Infringement?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Improv AZ and/or Brand X get cease and desist letters based on copyright infringement because our design was inspired by Apple’s logo. However, I’d argue that we created a parody that is protected under the fair use doctrine. A parody needs to resemble the original in order for people to get it; thus our shirts had to resemble the Apple shirts to be funny. Improv AZ did not make any money of these shirts, and Brand X probably isn’t turning a big profit either. Additionally, Apple doesn’t sell its shirt to the general public, and there’s no way someone who wants an Apple shirt would buy ours thinking it was close enough to what they wanted.

Thank you to everyone who came out to make this event a success and to Devon Christopher Adams and Sheila Dee for shooting such wonderful pictures of the event! If you want your own apple-heart shirt, they are available at Brand X Custom T-shirts.

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Law Student’s Take on the Zebra TM Dispute

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  I am a law student.  In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice.  It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

(cc) respres

Daniel Rothamel, a.k.a. the “Real Estate Zebra,” is a real estate agent and blogger in Virginia.  He’s being sued by The Lones Group Inc. in Bellingham, Washington, a company that helps real estate agents market themselves.  The Lones Group writes the “Zebra Report” and “Zebra Blog.” Their suit claims that Rothamel is infringing on their trademark and their zebra theme trade dress on their website.  In its complaint, The Lones Group is seeking over $75,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, plus attorneys’ fees for violations of Washington State law, federal law, and common law.

Under the Lanham Act (federal trademark law), a trademark or service mark includes any word, name, or symbol used in commerce to identify and distinguish the source of goods and services.   Trademark rights allow a company to prevent others from using their mark in commerce because it will create consumer confusion.  When a company registers their mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), they can exclude anyone in the country from using their mark. The first person to register the mark, regardless of when they started using it, gets national protection for the use of their mark.  If someone else was using the same mark before they registered their mark with the USPTO, that company can keep using the mark, but only within the area where it was using it when the other company registered the mark.  Without registration, a company can only exclude others from using their mark where they have used their mark in commerce.

According to the complaint, The Lones Group has been publishing its newsletter, “The Zebra Report” since 2005 and has been writing its blog, “The Zebra Blog” since November 2007.  I looked up Rothamel’s domain information and it appears that he’s had his blog since October 2006.  A quick word search on the USPTO website showed that there are no registered trademarks for “Lones Group,” “Zebra Report,” “Zebra Blog,” or “Real Estate Zebra.”  If there are no registered trademarks or trade dresses, The Lones Group can’t claim automatic national protection for their marks.

It appears that The Lones Group is trying to establish priority of use of their mark of “Zebra Report” and the use of zebras on their website to claim that they can stop Rothamel from having his blog.  Rothamel has priority over the use of “zebra” in connection with a blog and the real estate industry.

I see two big issues with this case.  First, I’d argue that The Lones Group and Rothamel have products that are too different for any consumer to be confused.   Rothamel is a real estate agent and The Lones Group helps real estate agents with marketing.  There’s no likelihood of confusion.  Based on what I’ve read from the real estate industry, there has been no confusion.  Second, the marks themselves don’t look that similar.  The Lones Group’s zebras are real pictures of zebras and Rothamel’s zebra is a cartoonish drawing of only a portion of a zebra.

The Lones Group has filed the lawsuit against Rothamel and the agency he works for, Strong Team Realtors.  The Lones Group is probably going after the realty company because they have more money than Rothamel, but I think their case is weak.  Unless Strong Team Realtors is paying for his blog, I don’t think they can be implicated in this case.

Additionally, if this case goes to trial, The Lones Group may have the burden of proving that Rothamel’s blog counts as commerce.  There must be a bona fide offer for a sale to qualify as using a mark in commerce.  Rothamel writes about being a real estate agent, but I think there’s an argument that the blog itself is not “in commerce.”  Rothamel mentions his employer but it doesn’t look like his promoting himself as a real estate agent.  I have not read every blog post on his site, so I could be wrong.  He does not seem to be selling any advertisements on his blog either.  Having a website, by itself, is not sufficient evidence to be in commerce.  If Rothamel’s use of “zebra” is not in commerce, it can’t be a violation of the Lanham Act.

I also think The Lones Group has a jurisdiction issue in regards to the claims under Washington state law.  The jurisdiction rules require you to have sufficient contacts with a state in order to be sued there.  Rothamel lives in Virginia and is a licensed realtor in Virginia.  The fact that his website is accessible to people in Washington, with nothing more, should not be sufficient contact with the state for Rothamel to be sued there under the state law.

Here’s what I think is really going on.  The URL for The Lones Group’s “Zebra Blog” is http://thelonesgroup.wordpress.com.  I think they want Rothamel’s domain (http://www.realestatezebra.com) and possibly his Twitter handle (@realestatezebra), and that they’re afraid he’ll say no if they offer to buy them off him.  If that happened, they wouldn’t have a prayer if they brought a trademark infringement case.  I think they’re hoping for a settlement where they get his domain in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.  And it looks like their approach has worked because Rothamel posted a blog tonight in which he shared a letter offering to stop using his domain, Twitter handle, and any reference to himself at the “Real Estate Zebra” in exchange for them dropping the suit.

Damn it!  I hate it when it appears that people are misusing the law to try to force people to give them what is not theirs to take.  I think Rothamel had a winnable case but he I’m guessing he probably couldn’t afford the potential legal fees if the case went to trial or worse, if he lost.

While I heard about this situation through my friend Jay Thompson, I don’t know Daniel Rothamel or anyone at The Lones Group, nor do I have any personal interest in the outcome of this case.  Based on the information in the complaint, my own research, and the knowledge I acquired in my trademarks class, I don’t think Rothamel is infringing on of the The Lones Group’s trademarks or trade dress.

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