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Infringements in Disguise: are Halloween costume knock-offs fooling any one?

October 31, 2011 5 Comments »
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I was in a Halloween store recently, one of those pop-up shops that temporarily occupy otherwise abandoned retail space for a season, like fireworks stores around the Fourth of July. I was thinking about how costumes relate to my line of work, and how costumes of famous people are a prime manifestation of the Right of Publicity. It’s a commercial product, obviously, but furthermore the product is entirely premised on making someone look as much as possible like the celebrity in question. The objective of the product is to depict (and sell) the famous person’s image or likeness.

This dynamic, no doubt, is why there is quite a lot of licensing activity in the area of costumes, from superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, to movie franchises like Star Wars and Transformers, to Animal House, Avatar, Curious George, Friday the 13th, Chuggington, WWE, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and on and on. Simply put, they sell. When the product is licensed, no problem and all is well.

But from my experience over the years, costumes based on famous people are not always licensed. As I’m perusing the Halloween store’s products, almost immediately I happen upon two men’s costume wigs, side-by-side, one entitled “Family Jewels” and the other designated “The Billionaire.” Here is the picture I saw on the “Family Jewels” product packaging and on the website of the company producing the product:

And here is the image I saw on “The Billionaire” product packaging and on a secondary retailer’s website:

This observation prompted me to check out the website of the company that produces these products. It is a leading costume retailer, authorized to produce and sell an impressive line licensed costumes, underscored by the fact that one of the main navigation tabs on the website is designated simply as “Licensed.” Their homepage loads with animated flash imagery of the KISS logo, images of the band, and the costume product line.

To find the “Family Jewels” wig though, I had to really search. It is there, in the mix of hundreds (if not thousands) of products, but not under “Licensed” and apparently not through any of the search key words one would expect (based on the various searches I attempted). On the product packaging itself, as well as the webpage entry for the “Family Jewels” product, I noticed that there is no use of Gene Simmons’ name, and the model wearing the wig does not resemble Gene Simmons (absent the effect of the wig itself which, after all, is meant to make a person look like Gene Simmons). When I scanned the product packaging in the retail store, I also saw no credit lines regarding the reality show, KISS, or Mr. Simmons.

This made me wonder: what would Gene Simmons do or say in response to a company that he had licensed which is simultaneously pushing a “Family Jewels” wig that, by every indication, is not licensed? (For purposes of this writing, I am assuming that the wigs are not licensed. To any of the parties directly involved in or affected by any of the products specified in this entry: correct me if I’m wrong and I will gladly set the record straight.)

Some will say, “Well, no reasonable person will think that this really IS Gene Simmons or Donald Trump pictured on the packaging.” This analysis confuses trademark standards with Right of Publicity analysis. The words “Family Jewels” by themselves are likely enforceable as a trademark, as the title of Simmons’ reality show, but I won’t get into trademark considerations here. For Right of Publicity purposes, there doesn’t have to be direct use of the person’s actual name or image. It’s really just a question of whether the person is identifiable.

I assume there is a written agreement governing the manner and terms by which the licensed KISS costumes can be produced by the licensee. In agreements I negotiate and draft for use of my Luminary Group clients, I typically protect against the scenario presented here (unlikely as it generally would be with a company that is securing a license from the personality in the first place). Through a well-drafted license agreement, a licensee would likely find themselves in quite a predicament by offering licensed goods on one hand, and on the other hand offering products that infringe the Licensor’s rights.

So let’s have some fun with this. In searching for the Gene Simmons and Donald Trump wigs, I found quite a few other examples. Who might “The Idol Judge” wig be identifying?

How about “The Promoter” wig?

Or the “Rocket Man” wig?

I’m guessing you got a 100% on that pop quiz (depending perhaps on your age or familiarity with certain public figures). One does not have to believe that this actually is Gene Simmons, Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Don King or Elton John for a violation of the Right of Publicity to take place. For each person you correctly identified, you probably also identified a potential Right of Publicity claim.

Let me offer a few more observations which might help illuminate how one goes about assessing a potential Right of Publicity violation:

· The product names make quite an effort to avoid use of the actual person’s name, while still craftily seizing upon a designation that confirms the intended person. Family Jewels? Check. The Idol Judge? Got it. Rocket Man? The title to one of Elton John’s iconic songs—10-4. I’d be inclined to say that rather than protecting the company behind these products from liability, these cagey but ultimately unambiguous names indicate a conscious effort to sidestep liability (and avoid licensing fees), potentially proving that the infringement is taking place on a knowing and intentional basis.

· The KISS storefront on this company’s website does not include the “Family Jewels” wig in the product lineup. The KISS collection, all things being equal, would be the most intuitive place to put the “Family Jewels” product. Grouping of products on a website, search words, tags and identifiers don’t happen by accident. Usually, inclusion is the guiding principle in grouping products and assigning key words and tags, so that a potential customer who wants to look like Gene Simmons will have no trouble finding the “Family Jewels” option. Of course, exclusion of these identifiers and tag words in all likelihood would be intentional as well. It doesn’t happen accidentally that certain products are emphasized, searchable and readily found, whereas others are buried.

I can’t help but notice that finding these products online was quite challenging, but in the retail environment where the idea for this entry was first inspired, it was not difficult at all. The “Family Jewels” and “The Billionaire” wigs were prominently displayed on prime retail shelf space. Of course, that retail store will be gone in just a few days, and a brick and mortar retail store is much harder for a licensor, brand owner, famous personality, or representative to monitor than a readily accessible, searchable, and archived website.

Maybe this is one reason why my clients tend to consider me good at what I do. I pay attention. In any event, I look forward to class discussion in my upcoming Right of Publicity law school class on the issues presented in this entry. I hope it has been educational and informative!

5 thoughts on “Infringements in Disguise: are Halloween costume knock-offs fooling any one?

  1. Jonathan says:

    When I think of wigs and the song “Rocket Man”, I am just as likely to think of William Shatner, who sang the song and wears a wig.

  2. Jon says:

    Sir Elton John and Simon Cowell are UK thus no ROP

  3. jfaber says:

    That’s not exactly right, but thanks for the post. Among various considerations is the fact that both Elton John and Simon Cowell are both still alive. I welcome further postings on this topic.

  4. jfaber says:

    Interesting. Of course, the wig looks like Elton John, and the song ties back to Elton John even if others have covered it.

  5. jfaber says:

    And not but a few weeks after these postings on Elton John and the “Rocket Man” wig, I see an advertisement (I think for satellite radio) featuring Elton John’s Rocket Man, in which the man and woman in the car discuss one of the lyric lines in the song. Elton, you have a claim here, I do believe.

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