No Trademark Infringement In Karaoke Case

Phoenix Entertainment v. Rumsey, No. 15-2844 (7th Cir. July 21, 2016).

The 7th Circuit affirmed dismissal of two trademark claims brought by a karaoke company, a serial trademark plaintiff, because the plaintiff had not plausibly alleged that the defendants' conduct resulted in consumer confusion as to the source of any tangible good sold in the marketplace.  Applying the Supreme Court's Dastar decision distinguishing between copyright and trademark claims, the Court noted: "In evaluating Slep-Tone's claims of trademark infringement, we must therefore ask ourselves what the tangible good at issue is, and whether the unauthorized use of the plaintiffs' marks (including trade dress) might cause consumers to be confused about who produced that good. Or is the real confusion, if any, about the source of the creative conduct contained within that good? If the latter, the confusion is not actionable under the Lanham Act."  In the instant case, "The defendants are not selling compact discs with karaoke tracks and billing them as genuine Slep-Tone tracks, in the way that a street vendor might hawk knock-off Yves Saint Laurent bags or Rolex watches to passers-by. Whatever wrong the defendants may have committed by making (or causing to be made) unauthorized copies of Slep-Tone's tracks, they are not alleged to have held out a tangible good sold in the marketplace as a Slep-Tone product. Consequently, the defendants' alleged conduct is not actionable as trademark infringement."

7th Cir. Affirms Dismissal of "Nikita"/"Natasha" Suit Against Elton John

Hobbs v. Elton John, No. 12-3652 (7th Cir. July 17, 2013).

Plaintiff composed a song entitled “Natasha” that was inspired by a brief love affair he had with a Russian waitress.  Plaintiff tried to publish  his song, but was unsuccessful. A few years later, Elton John and Bernie Taupin released a song entitled “Nikita” through a publishing company to which Plaintiff had sent a copy of “Natasha.” Believing that “Nikita” was based upon “Natasha,” Plaintiff eventually demanded compensation
from John and Taupin, and ultimately filed suit asserting a copyright infringement claim and two related state law claims. The defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim, and the district court granted the defendants’ motion.  The 7th Circuit affirmed.

The Court held that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because, even when the allegedly similar elements between the songs are considered in combination, the songs are not substantially similar.  Defendants conceded that Plaintiff owned a valid copyright in the song and that Defendants had access to it.  "Thus, the defendants can only prevail on their motion to dismiss if 'Natasha' and 'Nikita'
are not 'substantially similar' as a matter of law. That is, if as a matter of law 'Natasha' and 'Nikita' do not 'share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work'."  The Court found that Plaintiff's argument "flounders on two well-established principles of copyright law."  First, that the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea.  And second, even at the level of particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect “incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.” A careful review of both songs’ lyrics reveals that Plaintiff's first four allegedly similar elements are expressed differently in “Natasha” and “Nikita.” And the remaining similar elements are rudimentary, commonplace, standard, or unavoidable in popular love songs.  The two songs simply “tell different stories."

Because “Natasha” and “Nikita” are not “substantially similar” as a matter of law, Plaintiff's copyright infringement claim failed as a matter of law.

7th Cir. Affirms Dismissal of 50/50 Case for Failure To Allege Confusion

Eastland Music Group v. Lionsgate Entertainment, No. 12-2928 (7th Cir. 2/21/2013) [Doc. 22].

Plaintiff was the proprietor of the rap duo Phifty-50, and registered “PHIFTY-50” as a trademark.  Plaintiff also claimed a trademark in “50/50” and contends that defendants infringed its rights by using “50/50” as the title of a motion picture that opened in 2011.  The district court dismissed the case under Rule 12(b)(6).  The 7th Circuit affirmed dismissal.

"This complaint fails at the threshold: it does not allege that the use of “50/50” as a title has caused any
confusion about the film’s source—and any such allegation would be too implausible to support costly litigation."  Additionally, "If there is any prospect of intellectual property in the phrase 50/50, Eastland Music is a very junior user and in no position to complain about the 2011 film. Phifty-50 entered a crowded field, and its rights are correspondingly weak and narrow."  "Only a confusion about origin supports a trademark
claim, and “origin” for this purpose means the “producer of the tangible product sold in the marketplace.” 539 U.S. at 31. Eastland Music’s complaint does not (and could not plausibly) allege that consumers treat it as the producer or source of the film 50/50, or treat Lionsgate as the producer of the 2003 rap album."

Kanye Didn't Infringe, 7th Circuit

Peters v. West, No. 11-1708 (7th Cir. decided Aug. 20, 2012).

Plaintiff sued Kanye West, alleging that West's song "Stronger" infringed Plaintiff's song, also entitled "Stronger".  The hook to both songs draws from the aphorism coined by Friedrich Nietzsche: "what does not kill me, makes me stronger."  The District Court granted West's motion to dismiss, and the 7th Circuit affirms, agreeing that the two songs are not similar enough to support a finding of copyright infringement.

The court structured its analysis as (1) whether West had an actual opportunity to copy the original work (independent creations is a defense); and (2) whether the two works share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another's work.  The Court found that West had an opportunity to copy the work based on plaintiff's relationship with West's manager and collaborator.

"Once a plaintiff establishes that a defendant could have copied her work, she must separately prove—regardless of how good or restricted the opportunity was—that the allegedly infringing work is indeed a copy of her original."  The Court was not not persuaded that the similarities alleged by Plaintiff rose to the level of copyright infringement.  The Nietzsche aphorism is commonly used (indeed, was the subject of another Top 100 song by Kelly Clarkson at the time of oral argument of the appeal).  Next, the Copyright Act does not protect rhyme pattern, a method of expression, but instead protects only the actual expression.  Lastly, references in both songs to the model Kate Moss were entirely different.

"Vince P’s theory is that the combination of the songs’ similar hooks, their shared title, and their references to Kate Moss would permit a finding of infringement. But, as we have discussed, in the end we see only two songs that rhyme similar words, draw from a commonplace maxim, and analogize feminine beauty to a specific successful model. These songs are separated by much more than “small cosmetic differences,” JCW, 482 F.3d at 916; rather, they share only small cosmetic similarities. This means that Vince P’s claim for copyright infringement fails as a matter of law. The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED."