I’ve written on numerous occasions in the past about celebrities who registered their own names as trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Just the other week, I wrote about how UFC superstar Conor McGregor had filed an application to register his name as a trademark, and in that same article, I mentioned that undefeated Floyd “Money” Mayweather also has his name registered with the USPTO. Other celebrities who have trademarked their monikers include rapper 50 Cent, pop queen Kylie Minogue (whose trademark KYLIE resulted in Kylie Jenner being unable to register the mark herself), and reality television star Kim Kardashian West. It’s hardly uncommon for celebrities to protect their own names as intellectual property these days. With that said, a federal district court judge’s recent order on a motion to dismiss involving the Estate of Marilyn Monroe has sparked some panic in the media.
On Monday, March 13, 2017, Judge Katherine Polk Failla of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a ruling on the Estate of Marilyn Monroe’s motion to dismiss the counterclaim of AVELA (short for Art & Vintage Entertainment Licensing Agency) which attempts, in part, to cancel the Estate’s trademark rights in MARILYN MONROE. In issuing its ruling and permitting AVELA’s attempt to cancel the MARILYN MONROE trademark on the ground that it is generic, Judge Failla stated “To be clear, the court harbors serious doubts that V. International will be able to establish that the contested marks are generic….Reaching that conclusion at this state, however, would be premature.” Since Judge Failla issued this ruling, the web has been buzzing with articles and posts claiming that Judge Failla has left open the possibility that a celebrity name is too generic to register or enforce as a trademark. Unfortunately, while these articles may make for an interesting read, they fail to adequately explain the significance of the case’s procedural posture.
Judge Failla has issued her ruling in response to a motion to dismiss filed by the Estate of Marilyn Monroe. When such a motion is filed, the court is required to accept all properly pleaded facts as true. Then the court must ask itself, assuming all of the alleged facts are true, does the party state a claim to relief. Here, specifically, Judge Failla must ask herself if AVELA has stated an appropriate ground for cancellation of the Estate’s trademark assuming it can prove the facts it alleged. According to Judge Failla’s ruling, AVELA asserted a few facts to suggest that the Estate’s mark should be cancelled because it has become generic, and generic marks are never entitled to trademark protection. In order to be protectable as a trademark, a mark must have at least some level of distinctiveness. Thus, Judge Failla has permitted AVELA’s claim to go forward.
Now, what does this really mean? Not a lot. Although Judge Failla has stated that the possibility exists that the Estate’s mark has lost its distinctiveness, she was clear that the Court “harbors serious doubts” about AVELA’s ability to prove its claim, but that the law is clear that “whether a mark is, or has become, generic” is a decision for the finder of fact, and premature at this juncture. So, when you give the procedural aspect of this case due consideration, it is clear that Judge Failla’s ruling is not groundbreaking. It is highly unlikely that she will find the Estate’s mark to have lost its distinctiveness and enforceability, but the procedural posture and the fact that AVELA has stated facts that, if true, could result in a trier of fact declaring the mark generic and cancelling its registration, means that AVELA’s claim lives to fight another day. Beyond that, Judge Failla’s ruling does nothing more than refuse to prematurely foreclose AVELA’s claim. So, celebrities and their intellectual property consiglieres should not fear a shift in the law, their intellectual property rights are likely just as safe today as they ever have been.