Copyright Law Question
October 26, 2004 3:35 PM   Subscribe

Lawyerfilter: I'm curious about the legality of replicating content (designs, catchphrases, etc) from a given medium into another. For example, I love the "Real Genius"-inspired shirts that is producing ( "I Love Toxic Waste," "International Order for Gorillas," and "Surf Nicaragua,") but I'm wondering if it's permissible under the law. Thanks in advance to anyone willing and able to take a stab at explaning it.
posted by Sinner to Law & Government (8 answers total)
I seriously doubt any of those shirts are really legal to be sold, and I suspect whenever the studio catches wind of it, they'll send a cease and desist until the owner pulls the plug.

Movies have merchandising deals for a reason. You or I can't make our own bootleg Spongebob shirts and not expect to get busted over it, right?
posted by mathowie at 3:55 PM on October 26, 2004

Thanks for "explaining," but that's just not the same as "explaning," per my request. Totally different. (Oops.)

I figured a cease-and-desist would probably be the response, but I wonder about catchphrases - "Vegas, baby," "Oh, behave," "You can't handle the truth," etc., - that are quickly absorbed by/ingrained in pop culture. I don't know if there's a degree of cultural ubiquity where such things are actually acknowledged to have transferred into the public domain, and if so, whether it might also apply to other media, like images.

In that case, perhaps shirts, including the RG ones linked to above might be OK. On the one hand, there's Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, on the other, that goddam Happy Birthday song. Naturally, IANAL (and hence the question).
posted by Sinner at 4:27 PM on October 26, 2004

am I the only one that gets a Microsoft NT site, or am I not getting teh funnay?
posted by Lizc at 4:30 PM on October 26, 2004

I don't think anyone (including the studio) is going to care about the Real Genius shirts. To my knowledge they were never marketed by the studio and were probably just created by the art department for Val's character. I remember one of the characters in Teen Wolf always wore a stupid t-shirt as well.

As for something like "Vegas, baby", again, I doubt anyone can sue you. It's not a trademark and if the studio is concerned about people making money off of it, they would register it, no?

And no, you can't make your own spongebob shirt and sell it (because spongebob is a trademark), but you can make a shirt with a still from a movie on it (there's a reason for this that perhaps someone else can link to). I have no idea what "Oh, behave" is from so can't comment on it but again, I doubt it's a trademark.
posted by dobbs at 5:04 PM on October 26, 2004

Phrases can't be copyrighted. (Notice how many songs have duplicate titles. This is why. I can make a song called "Yesterday," or "Sweet Little Sixteen," or even "Happy Birthday" if I want, and there is no problem.) They can be trademarked, however. So those shirts are probably OK unless the phrase has already been trademarked for use on garments.

IANAL, so perhaps a L can elaborate. :)
posted by litlnemo at 5:07 PM on October 26, 2004

Those aren't just phrases. Those are full t-shirt designs.
posted by smackfu at 6:16 PM on October 26, 2004

For the sake of argument - which, I admit, is all this is - they're shirts that as far as we all know (and supported by the site's about page), never existed off the set of that film. Whenever the next round of new user sign-ups starts up, I'd like to nominate a patent/trademark attorney.
posted by Sinner at 7:50 PM on October 26, 2004

Ah, that will teach me to RTFLink. If there is artwork involved, there could be copyright issues there. So the Gorilla one might be questionable. The other two are just phrases in a font, which can't be copyrighted, so I wouldn't worry about those.

Though of course, someone can sue whether they are justified or not, and still make one's life hell. I wouldn't expect that anyone would bother in this case, but you never know.

(Once again, IANAL, but I do work with this sort of thing in one of my jobs, and I have been through a trademark-related lawsuit, so I've had to look into this somewhat. However, an IP attorney will no doubt find all of my errors.) :)
posted by litlnemo at 12:56 AM on October 27, 2004

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