Lionsgate v. Ameritrade: A classic case of copyright claims dressed in TM claims’ clothing

Spoofs have had a long history of getting into trouble. So it’s no surprise that when brokerage giant TD Ameritrade tried to put a cheeky spin on the iconic line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”, Lionsgate was not so forgiving. We had initially covered the matter , back in July, 2015 when Lionsgate filed an infringement suit against Ameritrade in Los Angeles.

Just to jog your memory and for our younger readers, who might not be familiar with the film in question, Dirty Dancing was a 1987 American romantic drama starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Liongate Entertainment Corporation (or Lionsgate) is the Canadian–American entertainment company which owns rights to the film.

Lionsgate had filed for trademark and copyright infringement suit with respect to its intellectual property rights for a cartoon re-enactment of the famous “Dance Lift” scene of the movie, objecting that the defendant is trying to free ride and make money from the famous line of the film, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” In the advertisement, a cartoon image of a man can be seen  holding a piggy bank above his head with the tagline, “Nobody puts your old 401(k) in the corner.” The plaintiff (Lionsgate) claims to own common law trademark rights in the impugned movie line and has applied for trade mark registration of the same in several federal states.  According to Lionsgate, it “licenses scenes from Dirty Dancing, including the Dance Lift” for merchandising.

The plaintiff contended that the defendant (TD Ameritrade) was “deceiving customers into believing that the impugned advertising campaign was a Lionsgate-licensed, authorized or sponsored work, when, in fact, it was not.”

On the other hand Defendant’s contended that the plaintiff’s claim for unfair competition and trademark infringement are pre-empted by the Copyright law as the claims are based on unauthorized re-creation of a creative work, which is the domain of copyright law.

The Court held that “Lionsgate’s trademark claims are pre-empted by copyright law”, accepting the Defendant’s contention and acknowledging the fact that the difference between plaintiff’s copyright and trademarks claim is that the latter’s claim of unauthorized use as to plaintiff’s association with defendant will create confusion among public. The copyright claims arises from the plaintiff’s right to be exclusive licensor and user of the impugned line from the movie- “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

The Court also discussed the landmark Supreme Court Judgment- Dastar (also known as Dastar pre-emption), which had held that “entertainment companies and others can’t camouflage plagiarism-type copyright claims into trademark claims so as to make an end-run around the public domain”.

Whether Lionsgate still pursue copyright infringement suit against TD Ameritrad is yet to be seen!

Authored by Sambhabi Patnaik.

Sources- here and here.

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