Trademark and Other Modes of Protection for Titles of Movies and TV Shows

The global reach of the internet brings with it the opportunity for artists, authors, and filmmakers to find a wider distribution for their works. Unfortunately, this opens up the possibility of infringement or outright taking of the works by others for their own use without attribution or compensation for the owner. Piracy and misappropriation of works of authorship is rampant throughout the world, and many movies, recordings, and products under copyright or trademark protection in the United States can be found online on foreign websites. These are termed “rogue websites” by the Motion Picture Association of America, and “notorious foreign infringers” in the SOPA legislative language.
Creative people are always trying to find ways to protect their intellectual property, and often an important component of that includes protecting the titles of their works. A filmmaker may worry that the unique and compelling title he has thought up for his film will be taken and used by someone else before the film even comes out. Federal trademark registration is the best way to protect a movie title, giving notice to all that the title is owned by someone. Trademark registrations, or even applications for registration, show up on all trademark or title clearance reports, which are required for the producers to obtain Errors & Omissions insurance. Federal registration can serve as a powerful deterrent to would-be infringers of a movie title, as they must also clear their production to obtain their own insurance.
Unfortunately, although an internet domain name can be reserved for the title, and copyright protection can be obtained for the screenplay or completed film, trademark protection is not available for the title, as a single creative work. No matter how fanciful or creative the title of a movie is, it is not registrable on the Principal or even the Supplemental Register in the Patent and Trademark Office. Although the statutory sections do not mention titles specifically, they are excluded from registration under the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP), which describes what constitutes a single creative work. This is a longstanding rule, affirmed by several landmark court cases since the 1950s dealing with the title of a literary work , which denies registration of individual book titles as being merely descriptive of the book itself, not identifying its source, no matter how unrelated the title is to the book’s contents. The TMEP gives examples other than books of single creative works which must be denied trademark registration, such as sound recordings, DVDs, videocassettes, audio CDs and films. Trademarks must not only be words that are not descriptive of or even generic for the goods, but they must identify the source of the goods in commerce.
There is an exception in the trademark law for registration of the title of a series of books or other works such as movies, and the TMEP excludes titles of series as not constituting a single creative work, and therefore registrable marks. A book or film that significantly changes content in subsequent editions or presentations, not just format changes or new editions to make minor changes, will be not be considered a single creative work. Examples of works that are not treated by the Trademark Office as single creative works are live performances by musical bands, television and radio series, and educational seminars, because they are presumed to change with each presentation.
Special sections of the TMEP deal with the titles of radio and television programs, which state that the title of a continuing series of presentations may constitute a service mark for either entertainment services or educational services. The record must show that the title sought to be registered is more than the name of a single presentation, performance, or recording. Series titles have even been protected against unauthorized exploitation in different media, as in the National Lampoon, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. case, where the National Lampoon, which published a magazine and had as radio series was able to enjoin the ABC network from using the words “National Lampoon” or even “lampoon” in a television series.
Since trademarks identify the source of goods, a movie title which has a planned sequel can be registered as a series, and evidence must be submitted that the title has been used on at least two different creative works. Use of the title on collateral goods such as posters, mugs, bags or t-shirts does not establish a series. Similarly, format changes such as the printed version of a book and the recorded version do not establish a series. Another section of the federal trademark law allows the registration of marks on an “intent-to-use” basis, which requires a “bona fide intention to use a mark in commerce under circumstances showing the good faith of such person.” This could allow a filmmaker to file his movie title as a planned series, which gives him more time to file specimens of actual use. During the pendency of the ITU application third parties would be deterred from using the title, though they cannot be enjoined from use until the registration is issued. The filmmaker’s bona fide intent to create a series of movies may include legitimate research into the market for such a series, the possibility of promotional activities to gauge consumer demand and financier interest. Even if the ITU application expires, it will still show up in clearance reports which will serve as notice to others of the ownership of the mark. The title of the first movie created may have already achieved secondary meaning under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, making it incontestable, unless it is challenged as generic.
With this information in mind, does a filmmaker who has the title of his movie but has not yet planned for a sequel have any chance of registering his title as a trademark? Several writers have suggested different ways that may work in circumventing the system, or advise using different legal approaches. The class of goods under which a movie title application is made could lead to registration success, if an aggressive approach is used by the filmmaker applicant. International Class 9, which includes “recording discs”, has been successfully used in the registration of several movie series, including the Harry Potter series, which lists the goods as “Digital versatile discs (DVDs) and for “motion picture films” in both Class 9 and Class 41, for “entertainment services.” That of course is a series and registrable, but there are several movie titles registered in Class 9 which have not had even one sequel, prequel or spinoff, which use the same description of DVDs of films. Reservoir Dogs used as its specimen a photo of a DVD box cover. The Blair Witch Project is also registered in Class 9, as is Judge Dredd, which is also lists use in Class 41. Since the Trademark Office does not require that the identification of goods reflects their series nature, and the applicant is not required to mention that its trademark may be barred under Section 2 of the Trademark Act by the single work title rule. This strategy of applying to register a single work title despite the rule is risky, but some leading trademark treatises approve such a challenge to the rule.
The Lanham Act provides in Section 43(a) for protection of some single work titles under federal unfair competition law, but this method, which requires that the registrant show the title as achieved secondary meaning, is difficult and expensive. Significant advertising expenditures, media coverage, consumer surveys, and other evidence must be shown to meet the burden of proof set by the Trademark Office. The appellate judge in the National Lampoon case noted that the trial judge justifiably found that ABC “had deliberately attempted to exploit National Lampoon’s well-known name and reputation in directing preparation of the pilot program”. The case included voluminous items of proof that the trademark “National Lampoon” had achieved secondary meaning, including the magazine’s history, contents, circulation, and sales figures, as well as information about the radio series and an off-Broadway play put on by the National Lampoon.
These kinds of expenditures are not usually in the budget of an independent filmmaker who may not have released his movie yet. State trademark laws in some cases may offer more protection, or a more difficult path for cancellation of the mark after it is registered. Ohio’s trademark registration scheme requires the filing of a civil action for unauthorized use or reproduction of a registered trademark or service mark. State registration also provides a deterrent to infringers when listed in a trademark and title report. However, the Ohio registration requirements mirror the federal rules, which exclude registration of “merely descriptive” marks. Many states rely on federal Lanham Act case law in the interpretation of their own trademark laws , and may impute the rule against single work title registration. One more difference in state trademark laws, including Ohio’s, is that they do not allow for intent to use registrations. The definitional section of Ohio’s law describes the `use’ requirement as “the bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade and not the making use of a mark merely to reserve a right in a mark.” State unfair competition laws are no better, as they also require that the title be strongly identified with the underlying work in the public’s mind, and that unauthorized use of the title in another work would confuse the consumers, the standard for a Lanham Act § 43 action, which forbids false designations of origin and false descriptions. Protection under California’s Unfair Competition Law is limited, and does not permit enjoining an infringing title, but requires a disclaimer. The Ohio laws on Deceptive Trade Practices, O.R.C. Chapter 4165, prohibit the “passing off” of goods and services as those of another, or causing the likelihood of confusion as to the source, sponsorship, approval or certification of goods or services, and use the same definitions of “trademark” and “service mark” as in the federal law.
Contract law is another method that a filmmaker may us to protect a movie title, but of course it would only apply to the parties to the agreement. To help alleviate some of the infringing activities involving the use of single film titles, the Motion Picture Association of America has established a private system of movie title registration. The Title Registration Bureau of the MPAA allows its members, which includes all the major film studios and independent producers who apply, to register their film titles. If a title is confusingly similar to another subscriber’s title and the subscriber objects, the dispute is referred to a MPAA arbitration panel, which holds a hearing and issues a decision resolving the dispute. The studios and producers who use this registration have agreed to be bound by the panel’s decision, but the general public is not bound by their agreement. Currently there are over 400 subscribers to the Bureau’s registry.
Some foreign countries, including Canada, allow trademark registration for single work titles. The Canadian Trade-Marks Guide lists among the things you cannot register as “clearly descriptive marks”, but has no prohibition against registration of single work titles as long as they are not “word[s] that describe an inherent feature of a product or service”. Canada’s Trade-Marks Act does not include any marking requirements, unlike those used by trademark owners in the United States (R – trademark, TM – registered trademark, SM – registered service mark.) Since many U.S. films are released in the unitary “domestic territory” of the United States and English-speaking Canada for marketing and contractual purposes, a registration in Canada will have the effect of blocking a third party from using a confusingly similar title in the United States as well as Canada, and the studio will probably want to market the film under the one title in the domestic territory.
The Lanham Act has two provisions that implement two major trademark treaties – the Paris Convention and the Madrid Protocol. These are designed mainly for the benefit of foreign registrants, nationals of or domiciled in a country that is a signatory to one of the treaties. There is an exception for U.S. entities that have a “real and effective industrial or commercial establishment” in the foreign country. The requirement for establishing your country of origin is a written statement by the applicant that it has “a bona fide and effective industrial or commercial establishment in the relevant country”. If evidence in the record indicates that the applicant does not have such a bona fide establishment in the country, the examining attorney will require that the applicant set for the specific circumstances and of such a claim, with relevant factors such as the presence of production facilities, business offices or personnel in that country. The sale of goods or services outside the United States will not, by itself, establish the country of origin. Although the registration rules for the Madrid Protocol and the Paris Convention, including the single work title prohibition, are supposedly the same as those in the United States, it seems the Trademark Office does not always enforce this rule for foreign trademark registration. One example of a single work title getting through the registration process is the musical Mamma Mia!, which is based on songs by the Swedish pop group Abba. This registration is in, among others, International Class 9 for “theatrical musical performances,” and under Class 41 for “entertainment services, namely production of musicals, theatrical production and motion picture films.” Another bonus for internationally registered marks is that unlike with United States registrations, a mark not entitled to be registered on the Principal Register can nonetheless be registered on the Supplemental Register, and once it is registered there, the registered trademark symbol ® can be used in connection with the mark, giving notice globally and a deterrent effect from the mark showing up in trademark and title searches.
Protection of your movie title against the numerous possible infringers in the U.S. and around the world on “rogue websites” and elsewhere is not an easy task, but the more notice you spread around, the less likely someone will want to steal and use it. It is worth a try to apply to register the mark using some of these techniques, as many will at least protect your title until you can decide if you want to make a sequel or series out of your original single film. A title registration can also be a companion to registrations made for your film’s logo’s use on promotional goods such as metal badges and pins (International Class 006), t-shirts (I.C. 25) or toy action figures (I.C. 28). Don’t forget to register your domain name with the title as well, since internet searches will pick it up and provide more notice to the online world that you own the title.

©2012 Mary Ellen Tomazic

Mary Ellen Tomazic to speak at Cleveland On the Rise CLE

Limited Liability Companies for Films

I. Basics of  LLCs

Independent filmmakers are busy people and often wear many hats. The producer of an independent film is often the person organizing the numerous tasks and people doing them to put a film together. To make sure he is not the one holding the bag for everything at the end of the production, the filmmaker needs a business organization that spells out who does what, who is responsible for paying for things, how those people are to work together, and under what circumstances they are to break up. The creative rush of working on a film sometimes has the effect of putting the business organization on the back burner, but this can have dire consequences. Like any group of people forming to do business, a film should have a formal business form, or the principals will be liable for all the debts of the project personally. If there is no business form registered, the participants will be treated and taxed as a partnership, with each partner liable for his or her divided share of the debts. A single person making a film will be treated and taxed as a sole proprietor, and will report film income and debts as his own, on his personal income tax form. The organization form which is the easiest and most suited for a film production involving a group of people is the Limited Liability Company, or LLC governed in Ohio by Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1705.[1]