Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Big Game That Shall Not Be Named (For Fear of Trademark Infringement Litigation)

Trademark law in the U.S. is copyright's badass older brother who doesn't want to hear you whining about fair use or parody--he doesn't care if you're kidding or adding value--because he said shut up because he came first and because he said so. This Colbert Report segment highlights the absurd power of intimidation that trademark law gives to big companies along with all the rights reserved to control the names of the culture we buy into. Wait, you mean we risk getting sued out of existence for mentioning the name of the most watched annual media event in the world?!? Viacom thinks so...
Stephen Colbert's coverage of "Superb Owl" satirizes trademark litigation.

U.S. trademark law is a tricky thing, and different from copyright. The distinction is something important for all of us who say or post anything online or make anything for a public audience--because ignorance of the law is not a defense! So, try using the Colbert clip above as a springboard to some research to find out when you can and can't say...

Superbowl! Hey, we're nothing if not risk-takers!

But seriously, your English, social studies, media studies, or media law class students need to know what intellectual property means, what fair use is, how copyright works, and how trademark and patent law work slightly differently. So--research time! Use the Colbert clip to brainstorm some questions with your class and send them on an Internet search for reliable answers. Here are some likely questions that will come up to help you prepare:

  • Can news shows use trademarked images and words in the news?
  • Is parody protected speech in relation to trademarks? Does fair use apply?
  • Can you move one letter, as in "Superb Owl," and escape infringement danger?
  • How does intellectual property law work in other countries? Who else observes trademark rights?

And here are some places to start for roundup:

There have been many newspaper and news blog articles written about Colbert's Superb Owl segment in relation to trademark law. Once you and your students learn about trademark law and intellectual property from reliable sources like the ones above, look around the Internet and evaluate whether or not the journalists have their notions of trademark law in order and assess how well their coverage informs their readers about the law.

If you need some more funniness on the topic of Colbert's video, here's a fun Reddit thread.

Can anyone suggest some engaging sites for high school (or younger) students learning about trademark law, or other areas of intellectual property?

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