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Famous Copyright Legal Battles and Some Lessons We Should Learn

Protection of intellectual property, name and logo, invention or creation is a constant concern in a wide variety of industries and not just once it happened to have been the subject of aggressive and world – renowned legal pursuits.

Famous trademark infringement lawsuits have kept the newspapers busy for years, led even to law modifications and contributed to strengthen a company’s good or bad reputation, while the artistic world witnessed numerous legal battles over the unpermitted use of prior artistic products, modifications added to a song, for instance, or plain copying of an already established product. As a company or an author in your own rights, you always have to be updated to the current trademark and copyright rules and regulations. You can trademark your company’s name, logo or motto and you can copyright an artistic material you created (but remember that you cannot trademark a song, but you can trademark a personal catch phrase. You can find out more about the similarities and differences between trademarks and copyright by studying legal journals and talking to an attorney.)

Whose music is this anyway?

There are tons of documented cases of copyright infringements in the music industry, but one very famous case is Vanilla Ice vs. Queen & Bowie. If you paid attention to the entertainment scandals in the nineties, you probably remember how rapper Vanilla Ice managed to settle out of court with Queen and David Bowie, as Ice’s version of the song “Under Pressure” didn’t credited the original artists, neither the artist asked for permission to use the baseline, or pay royalties.

Other famous musical battles involved Michael Bolton vs. the Isley Brothers, Luther Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (protecting the rights of Roy Orbison), or John FogertyvsCreedence Clearwater Revival. So if you want to make your own version of a song, first find out who holds the copyright and whose permission you should ask for. Careful with mash-ups and the concept of appropriation art and derivative work. Talk to your attorney.

A photograph is worth a thousand…

In the world of using other people’s taken photos to make your own creations, things are a little bit tricky. The courts (or negotiation offices) have seen many cases of people and companies being sued for using a photo or a design that belonged to another photographer / artist (Art Rogers versus Jeff Koons over a photo depicting a family and their dogs), a press company (Associated Press versus ShephardFairey’s poster Hope used during the 2008 President Obama’s election campaign), or a small enterprise (design firm Modern Dog versus Disney using portions of the company’s designs to sell Disney products).

Again, many cases of appropriation art, derivative works, rights of using public property or the lack of decency to ask somebody for permission to use their work, together with omitting to give somebody credit for their works are all relevant and good enough cases to face a trial.

When literature becomes universal

J.K. Rowling needs no presentation and the Harry Potter series made its way into universal literature and history. You can’t rewrite the Harry Potter series but you can reference it for future creative works of your own. This was not however the case with Steven Vander Ark’s ‘Harry Potter Lexicon’, a book in which Rowling found almost all of her books copied there, with no original contribution from the author. Let’s get our facts straight though: it is probable that if you wish to write a monograph regarding the characters or the events in a book, first you should ask the author’s permission. In most cases, this will be granted, but you will face a lawsuit if you just copy/paste chunks of the original manuscript and re-entitle the whole thing under your name and your alleged creativity.

Marks, products, marketing… who knows what is what?

These are only examples, and there are a lot more where these came from. Using stock images from the Internet infringes sometimes some copyrights, downloading free music or films is almost illegal in every part of the world, while choosing a name for your company that sounds suspiciously close to the name of an established brand only to attract clients is a mistake many have made and suffered terrible consequences, so before you proceed in “getting inspired” from somebody else’s efforts, think about originality and honesty as core values you should hold true to yourself.

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