MVS Filewrapper® Blog: USPTO Cancels Washington, D.C. NFL Franchise's Trademark Registrations

The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a decision yesterday cancelling six federal trademark registrations owned by the Washington, D.C. National Football League franchise.  The cancellation proceeding was brought by five Native American petitioners on the basis that the marks disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a).  The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) panel of three Administrative Trademark Judges sided with the petitioners, cancelling all six of the challenged registrations. 

 

The registrations in question were all obtained between 1967 and 1990 on behalf of the Washington NFL franchise, and are all word marks.  The registrations were previously challenged in 1992 in a similar proceeding that also challenged the team logos without the word marks.  In the prior proceeding the TTAB held that the marks were disparaging to Native Americans when registered and ordered the registrations canceled.  The Washington NFL franchise appealed the decision in the prior proceeding to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who reversed the decision as barred by the doctrine of laches. 

 

The TTAB panel found that the five petitioners had standing to bring the cancellation proceeding, and were not barred from doing so by the doctrine of laches. The TTAB panel further found that the alleged honorable intent and manner of use of the term did not contribute to the determination of whether the marks were disparaging, but rather the sole issue was whether a substantial composite of the referenced group found the term to be disparaging in the context of the Washington NFL franchise during the time period when the registrations were obtained (1967-1990). 

 

The TTAB consulted evidence that reflected the sentiments of Native Americans, including a resolution passed by the National Congress of American Indians, various reports and testimony, newspaper articles, official records, and letters, and concluded that the substantial evidence may have disparaged a substantial composite of Native Americans at the times of the registrations.

 

Administrative Trademark Judge Bergsman dissented in the opinion on the basis that the petitioners had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that a substantial composite of Native Americans found the marks to be disparaging in connection with the Washington NFL franchise during the relevant time frame.

 

The full decision and additional information are available here.  

MVS Filewrapper® Blog: Copyright 3-year Statute of Limitations Trumps Laches Defense

PETRELLA v. METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER, INC.

 

Frank Petrella wrote two screenplays and one book based on the life of boxing champion Jake LaMotta.  One of the screenplays, registered in 1963, identifies Patrella as the sole author, written in collaboration with LaMotta.  LaMotta and Patrella assigned their rights in the screenplay, including renewal rights, to Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc. in 1976, who in turn sold the motion picture rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM).  MGM released the motion picture portrayal of Jake LaMotta in 1980:  Raging Bull, staring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorcese. 

 

Patrella died in 1981, during the original term of the copyright in the screenplay.  Under the Supreme Court's decisions in Stewart v. Abend and Miller Music Corp. v. Charles N. Daniels, Inc., the right to renewal of the copyright reverted to Patrella's heirs, unencumbered by any of the assignments previously made by Patrella.  Patrella's daughter filed a renewal of the copyright in the screenplay in 1991.  In 1998, Patrella's daughter notified MGM that she owned the copyright in the screenplay, and any further exploitation of any derivative work, including Raging Bull, infringed that copyright.  A copyright infringement suit was not filed, however, until 2009.

 

Section 507(b) of the Copyright Act establishes a three-year limitation on claims seeking relieve for copyright infringement.  The 2009 complaint sought monetary and injunctive relief for violation of the copyright in the 1963 screenplay by using, producing, and distributing Raging Bull.  However, the complaint only sought such relief for acts occurring on or after January 6, 2006—three years prior to filing the suit.  MGM moved for summary judgment based on the doctrine of laches, asserting that even though the three-year limitations period set out in the statute had not run out, the claim was still barred under the equitable principle of laches— the 18 year delay between obtaining the copyright and filing suit was unreasonable and prejudicial.  The district court granted the motion, which was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.     

 

On ultimate appeal, the Supreme Court held that a copyright infringement suit seeking relief solely for conduct occurring within the limitations period cannot be precluded by a claim of laches, so long as the claim for damages is brought within the three-year window.  The Court highlighted that laches is an equitable defense, applicable to claims for which the legislature has not provided a limitation period.  Although laches may not preclude an infringement claim made within the limitations period, the Court made clear that other doctrines such as estoppel may limit the relief awarded.   

 

The full opinion is available here. 

Purported inventor who waited eight years to file suit could not overcome presumption of laches

In a decision yesterday, the Federal Circuit upheld a district court's grant of summary judgment due to laches and applicable state statute of limitations in an inventorship case. The plaintiff, having waited more than eight years after finding out about the patents to file suit, claimed that an intervening reexamination should have reset the time for determining laches and that the defendant's "unclean hands" in failing to include the plaintiff as an inventor precluded the application of laches. The court held that "there is no rule that the issuance of a reexamination certificate automatically resets the six-year clock for the presumption of laches" and that a plaintiff relying on "unclean hands" to defeat laches must show that "the defendant's misconduct was responsible for the plaintiff's delay in bringing suit."

More detail of Serdarevic v. Adv. Med. Optics, Inc. after the jump.

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Eleventh Circuit: Laches presumed not to apply in copyright case filed during limitations period

In a decision last week, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part a district court decision granting summary judgment in a copyright infringement action.  The central disagreement between the parties was over the scope of copyright protection in a book about sales techniques.  The district court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding fair use and laches precluded recovery.  

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed in the district court's decision as to whether instructional courses constituted derivative works.  However, the court vacated and remanded in part the district court's application of the fair use doctrine and laches.  Regarding laches, the court held, as a matter of first impression in the circuit, that laches may be raised as a defense in a copyright infringement action, even when the statute of limitations has not yet run.  However the court stated there is a "strong presumption" against laches when a claim is filed within the limitations period, only applying in "the most extraordinary circumstances."

Regarding fair use, the court criticized the district court's use of a so-called fifth fair use factor, specifically the consent of the copyright owner.  The court stated analyzing consent in the context of fair use was "incorrect, both in terms of logic and precedent," because "the existence of actual consent negates the necessity of conducting a fair use analysis in the first place."  Ultimately, there were sufficient questions of fact for one of the plaintiff's four claims to survive summary judgment, and the court remanded that claim for further consideration.

More on Peter Letterese & Assocs., Inc. v. World Institute of Scientology Enters. after the jump.

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