Originally posted 2010-05-05 21:28:31. Republished by Blog Post Promoter
I do a lot of bellyaching around here about how there are never any consequences for filing frivolous trademark and copyright lawsuits. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a well-heeled plaintiff that wants to use the expense of defending, even meritoriously, against a “federal case” as a way to effectuate a “business message” (namely, you’re out of business, because we say so)? Usually, nothing. Not just usually. Really pretty much a lot usually.
Not this time. This is a little dense if you’re not used to reading judicial opinions, but the payoff is worthwhile. Emphasis is mine:
The Franklin Mint Company and its principals, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, (collectively, Franklin Mint) appeal from a judgment dismissing their malicious prosecution action against the law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP and attorney Mark S. Lee (collectively, Manatt). Manatt represented the executors of the estate of Diana, Princess of Wales and the trustees of The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund (collectively, the Fund) in a lawsuit filed against Franklin Mint alleging claims related to Franklin Mint’s use of Princess Dianaâ€Ÿs name and image in connection with merchandise Franklin Mint advertised and sold. . . .
We conclude that, based on the record before us, no reasonable attorney could find tenable the false advertising claim as it was alleged and litigated in the underlying action. Therefore, we hold there was no probable cause to prosecute that claim. We also hold there was no probable cause to prosecute the trademark dilution claim because no reasonable attorney could conclude that the claim could satisfy two fundamental, long-standing principles of trademark law. First, to be protectable as a trademark, a word, phrase, name, or symbol must be used in commerce to identify goods or services and their source. Although Manatt contends that Princess Diana used her name in connection with her appearances at charitable events, that use does not demonstrate trademark use. Second, a trademark that is descriptive — such as a personal name — must acquire secondary meaning to be protectable in a trademark dilution action. In other words, the primary meaning of the mark (i.e., the descriptive meaning) must in the minds of the public be subordinate to its meaning as the source of goods or services. Because “Diana, Princess of Wales” has such an extraordinarily strong primary meaning as descriptive of Princess Diana as a person, the contention that it had acquired secondary meaning at the time of the underlying lawsuit was, as the district court in the underlying lawsuit observed, “absurd.” (Cairns v. Franklin Mint Co. (C.D. Cal. 2000) 107 F.Supp.2d 1212, 1222 (Cairns III).) Therefore, we conclude that the trademark dilution claim was untenable.
Now this is really interesting on several levels. One is the obvious one I’ve already alluded to–a court calling attorneys out and saying, “Stop the baloney. You knew what you were doing here was fallacious, but you just kept doing it. If malice and damages are proved, that’s actionable.” It’s astonishing to read that. Don’t even ask what has happened, in my own experience in the vaunted federal courts facing just such claims, that leaves me so dumbstruck reading this.
But then there’s the substantive legal stuff. Diana, Princess of Wales, not a “trademark”? Just because she’s mostly really a person (no longer a living one, granted, but you get the idea)? But what about all those other celebrity trademark names? Read More…