Ten Famous Intellectual Property Disputes

From Barbie to cereal to a tattoo, a copyright lawsuit can get contentious; some have even reached the Supreme Court

Mike Tyson's tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. Entertainment this spring, claiming that the use of his design in the movie The Hangover Part II was copyright infringement. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / Everett Collection)

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6. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a policy of writing a parody of a song only if he gets permission from the artist. In the late 1980s, the rap group 2 Live Crew attempted to play by the same rules. Luther Campbell, one of the group members, changed the refrain of Roy Orbison’s hit “Oh, Pretty Woman” from “pretty woman” to “big hairy woman,” “baldheaded woman” and “two-timin’ woman.” 2 Live Crew’s manager sent the bawdy lyrics and a recording of the song to Acuff-Rose Music Inc., which owned the rights to Orbison’s music, and noted that the group would credit the original song and pay a fee for the ability to riff off of it. Acuff-Rose objected, but 2 Live Crew included the parody, titled “Pretty Woman,” on its 1989 album “As Clean as They Wanna Be” anyway.

Acuff-Rose Music Inc. cried copyright infringement. The case went to the Supreme Court, which, in so many words, said, lighten up. “Parody, or in any event its comment, necessarily springs from recognizable allusion to its object through distorted imitation,” wrote Justice David Souter. “Its art lies in the tension between a known original and its parodic twin.”

7. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh v. The Random House Group Limited
Authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh surfaced in 2004 with claims that Dan Brown had cribbed the “central theme” and “architecture” of their 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Though Baigent and Leigh’s book was nonfiction and Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was fiction, they both boldly interpret the Holy Grail as being not a chalice but the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who they alleged had a child together.

Baigent and Leigh accused Random House—ironically, their own publisher, as well as Brown’s—for copyright infringement. A London court ruled, in 2006, that historical research (or “historical conjecture,” as was the case with The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) is fair game for novelists to explore in fiction. “It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way The Da Vinci Code has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright,” wrote Justice Peter Smith in his decision.

8. Lucasfilm Ltd. v. High Frontier and Lucasfilm v. Committee for a Strong, Peaceful America
When politicians, journalists and scientists, in the mid-1980s, nicknamed the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI), the “star wars” program, George Lucas’s production company was miffed. It did not want the public’s positive associations with the term to be marred by the controversial plan to place anti-missile weapons in space.

In 1985, Lucasfilm Ltd. filed a lawsuit against High Frontier and the Committee for a Strong, Peaceful America—two public interest groups that referred to SDI as “star wars” in television messages and literature. Though Lucasfilm Ltd. had a trademark for Star Wars, the federal district court ruled in favor of the interest groups and their legal right to the phrasing so long as they didn’t attach it to a product or service for sale. “Since Jonathan Swift’s time, creators of fictional worlds have seen their vocabulary for fantasy appropriated to describe reality,” read the court decision.

9. A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster Inc.
In 1999, to the dismay of musicians around the world looking to sell albums, Shawn Fanning, an 18-year-old whiz kid studying computer science at Northeastern University, created Napster, a peer-to-peer music sharing service that allowed users to download MP3s for free. A&M Records, part of Universal Music Group, a heavy hitter in the music industry, as well as several other record companies affiliated with the Recording Industry Association of America slapped Napster with a lawsuit. The plaintiffs accused Napster of contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. The case went from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where Napster was found guilty on both counts. In 2002, Napster was shut down. Grokster, another music-sharing site, surged on for a few more years, but it too stopped operating when the Supreme Court ruled against it in MGM v. Grokster in 2005.

10. Adidas America Inc. v. Payless Shoesource Inc.
In 1994, Adidas and Payless got into a scuffle over stripes. Adidas had used its three-stripe mark as a logo of sorts since 1952, and had recently registered it as a trademark. But Payless was selling confusingly similar athletic shoes with two and four parallel stripes. The two companies hashed out a settlement, but by 2001, Payless was again selling the look-alikes. Fearing that the sneakers would dupe buyers and tarnish its name, Adidas America Inc. demanded a jury trial. The trial lasted seven years, during which 268 pairs of Payless shoes were reviewed. In the end, Adidas was awarded $305 million—$100 million for each stripe, as the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog calculated.


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