Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

May 9, 2018

Trademark Shenanigans: Weighing In On #Cockygate


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a writer, and you hang out on Twitter and Facebook, you've probably heard about #cockygate.

If you haven't....An author named Faleena Hopkins has registered two separate trademarks for the word "cocky", which is used in all the titles of her multi-book romance series. One of the trademarks is a design mark (the word "cocky" in a stylized font, as seen above); the other is a word mark (just the word "cocky"). Both refer to “a series of downloadable e-books in the field of romance” and “a series of books in the field of romance.”

That description is significant. Because over the past week, Hopkins has begun threatening other romance writers who use "cocky" in their titles--even where those titles are not part of a series, or the word is not used in a series title--with legal action unless they re-title and re-publish their books.


Hopkins says (according to private messages that have been shared with me) that she's "not after people's livelihoods". She also doesn't think what she's demanding is a big deal, because taking down and re-publishing a book is "very simple. So easy." Of course this is a ridiculous claim--especially where writers have multiple editions on multiple platforms, not to mention financial investments in swag, advertising, websites, and other branding efforts.

There's been plenty of coverage of this bizarre incident. Legal experts have weighed in as well. I spoke with trademark attorney Brad Frazer, who provided me with some clarifying information on a complex and confusing issue.
Note that neither of [Hopkins' trademarks] is, for example, “a trademark on the word ‘COCKY’ as used in book titles.” The registrations cover a book series, and this is made evident if one looks at the 9-page specimen of use she submitted to the Trademark Office to support the registration: http://tsdr.uspto.gov/documentviewer?caseId=sn87604968&docId=ORC20180416120311#docIndex=9&page=1. Note that “Cocky” appears in each of the titles in a manner that connotes that the book is printed as part of the “Cocky”-brand book series. Indeed, without the fact the word is used as part of a book series, it is unlikely Hop Hop Productions [Hopkins' company] could have obtained the registrations.

This is because--and this is critical--in order for a trademark to exist and be registrable and enforceable, it must perform a “source identification function.” Here, Hop Hop was able to convince the Trademark Office that it has, since June of 2016, used the word “Cocky” to indicate the SOURCE of a series of romance books, and thus it was able to get it registered. There likely had to be a series of books for Hop Hop to convince the Trademark Office that the word “Cocky” performed this source identification function—one book with “Cocky” in the title would likely not have been enough to convince the Trademark Office, especially given that Hop Hop has ostensibly used the mark for less than two years. Just like when people see “Harlequin” on a book, they think of Harlequin Enterprises as the SOURCE of that book because “Harlequin” indicates more than just a book title. It indicates the SOURCE. See http://tsdr.uspto.gov/documentviewer?caseId=sn72184920&docId=ORC20081030112630#docIndex=10&page=1.

Because source identification is necessary to create and register a trademark, in order for there to be trademark INFRINGEMENT, as Hop Hop has apparently alleged in certain cases, the allegedly infringing “thing” must also be performing a source identification function. Thus, not all uses of a word perform a source identification function, and if there is no such use, there likely can be no trademark infringement.

For example, imagine I titled my book, “The Apple Tree and the Pheasant.” Would a consumer realistically believe that Apple Computer was the source of that book? No. Or, imagine I titled my book, “The Harlequin Pleased the King.” Based strictly on that use of the word “harlequin,” would a consumer think that Harlequin Enterprises was the source of my book? No, and thus no trademark infringement.

This is supported by what is called in trademark law the “classic fair use defense.” It is well-settled that you may use a third party’s trademark in the ordinary, English-language sense of the word, and as long as it was not performing a confusing, source-identification function, there is likely no trademark infringement. For example, if I wrote a story about King Neptune and his trident and I titled it, “King Neptune’s Powerful Trident,” if I got sued by the owner of the “Trident” trademark (see http://tsdr.uspto.gov/documentviewer?caseId=sn71653425&docId=ORC20110315095116#docIndex=18&page=1), I would have a very good classic fair use defense in that lawsuit since I am using the word “trident” in its normal, English-language construction (see https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trident) and NOT TO INDICATE THE SOURCE OF THE BOOK.

Thus, if you have one book and it is titled, for example, “The Gardener was a Cocky Lad,” I invite you to ask: is your use of the word “cocky” performing a source identification function such that people would be confused into thinking that Hop Hop was the source of your book? Is it being used only in a classic fair use sense to describe the gardener in your story as cocky, as defined by Webster? (See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cocky)

Now, trademark law is very fact specific, and each case must be decided on its relative merits. There may be some cases in which use of the word “Cocky” in a book title does create a likelihood that a consumer would be confused into believing that Hop Hop was the source of that book. But that is the test. Without that likelihood of consumer confusion, proving trademark infringement is very difficult. But please consider these factors if you receive an allegation of trademark infringement as to your book titles.
Most legal commentary that I've read on l'affaire Cocky seems to agree that Hopkins' trademarks wouldn't stand up to a legal challenge. But authors who receive her threats--which admittedly are scary--may not realize this, or be able to afford legal counsel (at least some authors have already re-titled their books). Also, more concerningly, Hopkins is sending takedown requests to Amazon, which appears to be complying in at least some cases. Once Amazon takes down your book in response to a challenge, getting it reinstated is a nightmare.

Romance Writers of America is gathering information to consult an IP lawyer, and is asking that RWA members who've gotten a threat letter from Hopkins contact Carol Ritter (carol.ritter@rwa.org). Also, a petition has been filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel Hopkins' word mark (the design mark, with "cocky" in a stylized font, is apparently a copyright violation by Hopkins).
And two lawyers at a prestitious IP law firm have offered to work pro bono on a legal challenge.

Meanwhile, the #cockygate hashtag has been joined by #byefaleena. And Hopkins is taking refuge in that old, old claim of Writers Acting Badly: I'm being bullied!

Let there be ridicule.

UPDATE: RWA has successfully interceded with Amazon, which has agreed not to take down any more books and to reinstate any that were removed.
UPDATE 5/30/18: Hopkins is doubling down: she has filed for preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders against Jennifer Watson, Tara Crescent, and Kevin Kneupper, claiming that Watson and Crescent are infringing her trademarks (Crescent is an author who uses "cocky" in some of her titles, and Watson is a member of the Cocky Collective, a satirical group that is producing an anthology called Cocktales: The Cockiest Anthology) and that Kneupper's petition to the USPTO to cancel the "cocky" trademarks is without merit.

The temporary restraining order has been denied. A hearing on June 1 will address the preliminary injunction.

Kneupper has posted the legal documents (in which, among other things, Hopkins claims that it's easy to cause consumer confusion in the romance field because "romance novel series consumers do not exercise a high degree of care", and compares the alleged infringers to "a pack of blood-thirsty wolves") on Twitter.

UPDATE 6/3/18: Thanks to the Authors Guild and RWA, Faleena Hopkins' motion for a preliminary injunction against Tara Crescent and Jennifer Watson has been denied. The judge in the case found that "Hopkins was not likely to succeed on the merits because the word 'cocky' is a common and weak trademark, there was no evidence of actual confusion, and romance readers are sophisticated consumers—meaning that they are not likely to confuse Hopkins’ and Crescent’s books."

Kevin Kneupper has been dismissed as a defendant in the case.

Courtney Milan has posted the transcript of the hearing--it makes for interesting reading.

This doesn't mean the case is over, unfortunately. Discovery must be completed by September 7, and a status conference has been scheduled for September 14. Lawyers for the defendants plan to move to dismiss prior to those dates.

UPDATE 8/1/18: Faleena Hopkins is backing down. From the official statement of Jennifer Watkins and the Cocky Collective:
Jennifer Watson and the Cocky Collective are happy to announce a settlement has been reached in Hop Hop Productions, Inc. v. Kevin Kneupper, Tara Cresent and Jennifer Watson. The plaintiff has surrendered her trademark registrations for COCKY and has withdrawn the lawsuit.
Authors can now use "cocky" in as many titles as they please, without fear of harassment from Hopkins. Good news indeed.

May 3, 2018

Contract Red Flag Alert: Perpetual License for Derivative Rights

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

SFWA's Contracts Committee has recently been seeing a proliferation of contracts from small magazines, and a very few established markets, that license all derivative rights in perpetuity.

This is a red flag for a number of reasons, even if these rights are licensed non-exclusively. A derivative work is defined by copyright law as "a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted." This sort of rights grab is by no means normal; magazines generally only take very limited first publication and archival rights for a limited time. Licensing the right to create derivative works can and mostly likely will interfere with the author's right to exploit their right to create or license derivative works to others.

The risks of signing such contracts can be serious. To give examples of some of the negative impact of these rights grabs.

1) Dramatic rights are compromised, limiting the author's ability to sell works for TV and film use because the author can no longer offer exclusive rights to the story, which means movie or TV producers who want exclusive dramatic rights are not likely to be interested in the work. The best case scenario is that the author may end up having to give the publisher of the magazine a cut of any income.

2) Marketing rights are compromised, in that any marketing deal could be undercut by the publisher, who would also have the ability to market those rights.

3) The ability of the author to publish sequels is compromised. The Publisher could commission sequels to the work from another writer, in competition with the author. Even if the Publisher were required pay a fee to the author for a sequel written by another writer, the existence of such competitive sequels would likely seriously hurt the author's own sequels.

4) The author would have a de facto business partner for the rest of the author's life and beyond for the life of copyright. Whether or not a clueless publisher would even realize what they've acquired or have any idea how to exploit it, the specter would hover over the author's further use of any elements in the original story. In addition, if the publisher files for bankruptcy, any rights the publisher held would likely become part of its assets sold during the bankruptcy process. The author would then end up with a completely unknown business partner.

5) Even with a perfectly drafted contract, which seems unlikely with a publisher who would propose such a contract in the first place, it could easily take years of legal action to unscramble the competing rights.

To the beginning writer, it may seem far-fetched that these rights would ever be worth anything, but a perpetual rights grab can extend far into a writer's career. It literally doesn't end until the copyright on the work expires, and for the US, that is life plus 70 years. Writers should be wary of any perpetual licensing deal, much less one that doesn't limit itself to specific derivative rights. The only rights that a writer should even consider licensing to a publisher are those rights that the publisher has a better chance of exploiting than the author, and only then when the income split is in the author's favor.

Whether these rights grabs stem from ignorance of the business or from greed, we believe they are unconscionable and indefensible. We urge writers to ask that such clauses be removed from contracts before they sign them and to avoid signing contracts with this language.

SFWA Contracts Committee
contracts@SFWA.org

Legal Disclaimer: This contract alert should not be understood to be legal advice. The issues presented by aggressive rights grabs are complex, and if you are concerned about use of your material, you should consult a competent attorney familiar with the business of publishing as well as the law of the applicable jurisdiction for legal advice.
 
Design by The Blog Decorator