In discussions I’ve had with various others in all aspects of the intellectual property realm, I’ve continually run across points where the law has lagged behind the practicality of intellectual property management. This has been an ongoing problem in the IP realm with respect to issues created by technology, but issues do extend into other areas as well. In order to outline some of these issues and possible solutions, I will be occasionally posting articles in my Intellectual Property 2.0 series.
I can’t imagine that those who created our copyright and trademark laws envisioned the world we live in today, where the entertainment industry has become a megalith dominated by ongoing brands as much as it is by individual works. It is to this end that we have seen some unforeseen consequences. Copyright continues to be extended, negating much of the original intent that works pass to the public domain. However, should these works ever pass into the public domain, a new issue would immediately be born. To the extent that many of these works are also the matter of trademark for the company, they are, in essence, still not in the public domain. By the same token, should Congress continue to extend copyright, they never will be. But is there a solution? Within the practical bounds of intellectual property as we know it, not exactly. However, if the legal system is willing to move forward into a more modern intellectual property scheme, then we can solve both issues simultaneously.
This new idea is something I would refer to as ‘Copymark.’ In short, to the extent a copyrighted work is also the subject of a registered trademark, the copyright remains intact until the trademark lapses. By creation of this new category of intellectual property, you resolve two issues. One, copyright need never be extended for a concern related to the ‘brand.’ Two, those with copyrights that overlap with their trademarks no longer need to be concerned with the fate of the brand once the copyright expires. In order to balance rights, though, there would of course be a catch. To register for copymark, one must forego traditional copyright and trademark filings, and as a result, should the copymark lapse, the work would go immediately into the public domain regardless of the ‘life of the author plus 70 years’ or other expiration provisions of copyright law. More than likely, copymark status would be a filing once both the trademark and copyright are established, and the filer would have to forego their existing copyright and trademark rights in order to secure the new registration.
The concept would really only have appeal or application to those within the entertainment realms. After all, the IP is only applicable to instances when both copyright and trademark to the same IP. Unless you are already in an industry which deals in copyrighted works, then the copymark would never even be an issue. Conversely, unless you develop products and a brand that associate with a copyright, then copymark would never be available. Whether or not a ‘famous’ element would be a consideration is yet to be seen. In short, this is more or less a solution for the Disneys, the Microsofts, the Nintendos, and other big players whose copyrighted characters are also synonymous with the brand itself.
Taking a practical example from the world of gaming, let’s look at Mario. Mario is the subject of many of Nintendo’s trademarks and is more or less synonymous with the Nintendo brand, much like Mickey Mouse and Disney. Well into the future, is there any major benefit for the original Super Mario Brothers to pass into the public domain when the original Mario 8-bit sprite is still the subject of trademark? Similarly, would it be practical for Steamboat Willie to enter the public domain while Mickey Mouse is such a closely protected trademark? From a practical standpoint, not really. Assuming the rights holder is looking to aggressively protect the brand, use of the public domain character would be attacked on trademark grounds, and potentially with good reason. Any game you encounter with Mario in it is expected to be a Nintendo creation. Brand identity has moved beyond traditional trademark notions with respect to entertainment properties. Copymark resolves the incongruity of copyright and trademark with respect to entertainment products.
I can only imagine that many on the intellectual freedom side would, on principal and face value, oppose this idea. However, it is worth pointing out that much like the source intellectual properties, copymark would require fair use provisions. What exactly those provisions would entail would likely be the subject of a lengthy debate, however, elements of both copyright and trademark fair use theory would need to be present. Elements like critique, news reporting, and brand identification would be easily preserved under a copymark regime. In fact, it may even be an opportunity to introduce newer fair use provisions that are appropriate to these IPs.
It may be expecting a lot to see a tectonic shift in well established intellectual property regimes, but it is inevitable that new problems will require new solutions. The entertainment brand as we know it did not exist decades ago, but it is a near certainty that it will continue in this manner for decades to come. The printing press gave rise to copyright, and the guild system gave rise to trademark. It only seems to follow logically that the changes to the entertainment ‘brand’ would give rise to a new intellectual property regime, since intellectual property is the backbone of the industry itself. I can only imagine that companies like Microsoft and Disney might jump at the opportunity to see some of their most prized IPs protected throughout their useful life, rather than having to re-lobby Congress before certain copyrights are set to expire. It's difficult to predict whether an idea like this might ever truly be implemented, but unless people are willing to think outside the traditional intellectual property box, problems like these will be perpetual.