Poor Kanye West -- The Victim Is Criticized: Is "Coinye" Really A Trademark Parody?

Jan 10 2014, 3:43pm CST | by

Poor Kanye West -- The Victim Is Criticized: Is "Coinye" Really A Trademark Parody?

It is easy to jump on the egomaniacal-celebrity-can’t-take-a-joke bandwagon.  But in truth, he may have something here.  People are entitled to poke fun, to parody and even take “inspiration” from celebrities, their images and their names.  Always, it is a question of what crosses the line and goes from parody or simple amusement to the point of diminishing someone’s rights to their name or property.

Kanye has done what any sophisticated celebrity will do these days: register and protect his name as a trademark. That does not prevent people from speaking or using his name.  His name is still his name. But when he starts to use his name on goods or services, especially if it is a famous name, he does have the right to stop people from taking actions that would weaken the connection between him and anything seemingly bearing his name.

The Coinye website states, “we would like to make it clear that we are entirely independent of the man. The name “Coinye” is intended solely as parody, not an indication or implication of endorsement or involvement.”  That helps, but these types of disclaimers are not by any means automatic.  Otherwise, I could sell counterfeit watches on the Internet as long as I put up a notice on my site that said “just kidding.”  (As a matter of fact, that is exactly what some people do, but they get sued daily – a whole ‘nother story.)  Will their disclaimer be enough to fend off the lawyers and win the day?  Almost certainly not as to the first part, and a resounding “maybe” to the second.  All revolves around what consumers would think, and much of that ultimately would need to be proven by one of two types of proof: a consumer survey or instances of actual confusion.

The effect on the value of Kanye West’s brand is one of the prime concerns cited in the cease-and-desist letter. “Given Mr. West’s wide-ranging entrepreneurial accomplishments,” it states, “consumers are likely to mistakenly believe that Mr. West is the source of your services.”  Being a successful and even famous celebrity does not automatically mean that consumers will be mistaken by use of the name on particular products or services.  But when high-profile celebrities receive significant compensation for associating their names and likenesses with a product or service beyond their particular specialties,  then a legitimate question about damage to the celebrity’s brand arises.  If Kanye used his brand only on musical recordings and entertainment, maybe the public would not ever believe that an unrelated product would come from him.  It is important to recognize the fact that there is a distinction to be made: the public maybe “gets” the association between Coinye and the real life Kanye. But if Kanye has no reputation for selling or endorsing anything, then maybe consumers will not believe this has his approval or association.

Where a celebrity allows this type of use to go unaddressed, it is risking that the next infringer will make an argument that goes something like this: “Hey, there was ‘Coinye’ and you didn’t do anything about that,” so therefore the public recognizes there are lots of uses out there which refer to you but which you do not control.

Every time you decide not to act to protect your brand, you run at least some risk of longer-term damage.

There is nothing new about the power of co-opting a well-known name to increase exposure for a lesser-known entity. Sometimes it is not fair, but it is legal as long as no one is harmed or unless the public has some strong free speech right (which is not usually related to a for-profit product like this one).  But we do need to remind ourselves of something else: just because the “victim” may be a big name, big reputation celebrity and reality-TV figure, it doesn’t mean their efforts to say “no” are wrong.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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