9th Circuit makes trademark fair use even more confusing

Aaargh. A great case for Bill McGeveran’s claim that trademark defenses have grown so rococo that they can be detrimental to legitimate uses.

Experience Hendrix L.L.C. v. Hendrixlicensing.com Ltd, Nos. 11-35858 (9th Cir. Jan. 29, 2014)

Defendant Pitsicalis, who licensed copyrights in some images of Hendrix, was found liable for trademark infringement for some Hendrix-related conduct.  (The court also upheld Washington’s right of publicity law that grants rights of publicity to everyone, domiciliaries or not, within Washington’s borders—another reason the Supreme Court should fix this metastasizing right, and quickly.)  On appeal, Pitsicalis challenged only the determination that the domain names hendrixlicensing.com  and  hendrixartwork.com infringed  Experience  Hendrix’s  trademark  “Hendrix.”   He argued that his use was nominative.  The district court found  that  Pitsicalis used “Hendrix”  in his  domain  names  to  refer,  not  to  Experience  Hendrix’s products  (as  the court of appeals said was  required  for  a  nominative  fair  use  defense),  but only  to  Pitsicalis’s  own  product  or  service,  licensing  and marketing  Hendrix-related  goods  (which  is  not  protected under  the  nominative  fair  use  defense).  “On appeal,  Pitsicalis does  not  argue  that  his  domain  names  refer  to  Experience Hendrix’s products.  Nor does he contend that Jimi Hendrix is  Experience  Hendrix’s  product.”    (Citing  Cairns  v.  Franklin Mint  Co.,  292  F.3d  1139  (9th  Cir.  2002).)  Pitsicalis didn’t raise a descriptive fair use defense (probably because it’s so messed up in the 9thCircuit after the KP Permanent remand), which would deal with a use of a mark to describe only the defendant’s own goods.  Affirmed.

But this is nonsense: raising the nominative fair use defense inherently makes the point that Jimi Hendrix is both a fact-in-the-world and a trademark, just like the New Kids, just like Princess Diana.  In neither of those cases did defendants refer to the goods or services the plaintiff was selling under the mark; they used the names at issue to refer to the entities named, just as here.  Defendant’s service might have been licensing Hendrix-related goods, but the reference to Hendrix contained in his domain names was nominative: a reference to Jimi Hendrix the person, to whom the trademark also pointed.  This seems to be some weird “use as a mark” concept, not fully spelled out and therefore left around like a loaded gun to damage some other fair use.
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