Copyright Absurdity

This story isn’t really that significant, but it’s a case in point of copyright absurdity:

Madonna is being sued for using the name “Material Girl,” a reference to her hit 80s song, in her juniors clothing line designed with her daughter Lourdes. Clothing maker LA Triumph says it’s been using the name to market clothes since 1997. LA Triumph contends it makes similar clothes for the same market and claims it’s now at “a risk of being subsumed by Madonna’s profile, obvious worldwide notoriety.” Madonna’s line launched earlier this month with Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen as its face. The singer hasn’t commented.

As you may know, pop singer Prince found himself losing ownership of his own name when he left his record label, becoming an unpronounceable symbol and “The Artist Formerly Known As.” Comic book creator Alan Moore has had his creations made into several different films (The League of Extraordinary, From Hell, Watchmen), not one of which he has supported or even watched, according to interviews.

There’s alot of disagreement about copyright laws and I’m not sure what the consensus is at TLP, if there even is one. I’ll voice in by saying that the current copyright laws work for executives of corporations who distribute creative work and not those who actually create it.

There is an effort to combat this in the comic book industry, with a rise in “creator-owned” enterprises. A few of these include the Powers series by Marvel (written by Brian Michael Bendis), Bone by Jeff Smith and the Criminal series by Marvel (written by Ed Brubaker). DC also has its own line of creator owned series, which you may have heard of, called Vertigo.

The internet revolution has greatly reduced the concentration of power in the music industry away from the record labels, and the labels have used the artificial protection of copyright laws to try to stop change by prosecuting fans who download, artists who distribute their own music, etc. The freedom of information that the internet provides works for small time artists, but artists who sign with larger labels in hopes of obtaining wider distribution will continue to be selling their own creative rights away.

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  • Cian Kinsella

    Yes, But…

    The internet is still the Wild West as far as copyright law goes for small creators. On the one hand as you say they are trampled on by big business, on the other their stuff is being stolen on the internet. The internet should be a boon to individual creators it certainly is not that yet.

  • Michael O. Powell

    Those are certainly good points, Clan. This seems at its core to be a phenomenon that needs to work itself out. Comic book creators now have iPhone apps to their benefit, which some do charge for. FIlm producers can deliver their goods to literally anyone on the planet with minimal cost.

    Then again, the bootlegging is at a scale that no previous generation had to deal with. Like our Thomas Sowell quote here says, “There are no solutions. Only tradeoffs.”

  • marcyrw

    The Madonna case is really about trademark law. Once someone has used a trademark, such as “Material Girl”, in commerce in connection with a certain good or service, that person’s trademark is protectable under U.S. trademark law. If someone else uses that same name in commerce for a same or substantially similar good or services, that second person is violating the first user’s trademark. The reason is that the multiple uses of the same trademark for the same or very much similar goods or services confuses the public. It’s really not that absurd, if you think about it.

  • Michael O. Powell

    That does make sense, Marcy. I’m willing to say I’m wrong on this stuff if I am. Was it the same problem with Prince or Alan Moore?

  • marcyrw

    Hi, Michael:
    In the case of Prince, if “Prince” wasn’t his real name, and he used it in commerce, then abandoning the use of his name in commerce would be a trademark issue. In other words, if a company or a person uses a name in commerce (i.e., a trademark) and then decides not to use it anymore over a certain period of time, it’s considered “abandoned”. That means that anyone else can then use it in commerce. Again, it makes sense, because we don’t want everyone just tying up names or trademarks if they’re not using them. So, “use it or lose it”, basically. In the case of Alan Moore, note that you used the word “creations”. A “creation” is copyrightable. So, with Alan Moore, it’s a copyright issue. However, Alan Moore probably signed away his copyrights in his creations to his publishers, who own the characters and the stories. It’s a complicated issue, but this is the very basic version. To get back to Madonna and Prince: if someone used the lyrics of “Material Girl” in a song or if someone used a Prince-owned song without permission, that’s a copyright issue.

  • CJS

    I’m not so sure that this is that absurd. I have problems with the way patent laws are applied, particularly regarding software. I also have a problem with the DMCA suppressing certain types of software because they might be used to break copy protection schemes which are worthless to begin with. I think that we may have lost track of what a “limited time” means, especially when applied to a corporation. But in this case I don’t see a problem with the way copyright and trademarks are being used. If we are to regard copyrights, trademarks and patents as intellectual property, then such property can be sold just like any other property. It wouldn’t be valid if Madonna claimed ownership of a house she sold years ago, would it?

    Now a case could be made that they cannot be viewed as property, but that is a much larger discussion.