Legal Question in Intellectual Property in California

This is about "fair use" of copyrighted material.

I am a singer and songwriter, being hired for paid engagements for corporate conventions. One feature of my show is singing and playing custom arrangements of favorite theme songs of old sci-fi TV shows.

For this segment, when each new TV show theme comes up, As I perform, a video of related images plays on a screen behind me. Currently, I am using photos of fans in costume and home-made TV title logos. But I'd like to use the original title logo on screen. And for that matter, it would be great to use a few seconds of footage from each show's original promos or trailers as well. OR to use promotional and/or PR photo stills of the stars of each show, and have them pop up on the screen.

Some people say if the logo -- say the Star Trek logo -- is widely disseminated, there's no copyright issue. It's fair to display it on a screen during a paid performance. Is that correct -- or is there strict copyright law protecting ANY use of a show's title logo?

Is it permissible to use footage from past show promos or trailers for the shows? Or still promo photos?

Or must I create my own approximate version of the logo and not use any existing footage, no matter the source, without express permission?

Asked on 9/02/19, 10:46 am

1 Answer from Attorneys

Keith E. Cooper Keith E. Cooper, Esq.

Your question confuses copyright and trademark principles. The short answer, is 'no' you can't use other people's work for your own profit (i.e. paid engagements).

"Fair use" is a copyright principle that permits critics, reviewers and teachers to include small portions of the original in their critiques of a copyrighted work. The use you are proposing sounds as if it is to enable you to profit from someone else's famous work and does not qualify as "fair use" under copyright law. Period. If, however, the work is old enough that it has fallen into public domain, then anyone can use it. The question is whether the original creator properly maintained their copyright, which you would need to investigate. You might be interested to learn that Star Trek itself was the subject of one of the controlling cases in copyright law and is NOT in the public domain.

Generally speaking, logos fall under trademark law as a means of identifying the origin of a product or service (in this case, a television program). Logos belong to the company that originated them and is using them in commerce to market their products and services. And, yes, as you are well aware, Star Trek products are heavily merchandised and the logos are quite valuable. Again, 'no' you can't use them without permission.

Creating your own "approximate version" is still considered stealing someone else's intellectual property and won't protect you. And, please note, photos other people have taken belong to them, not the public domain.

Your best course of action is to approach (or have your sponsors/employers approach) the owners of the intellectual property you want to use and ask them if they would permit you to use it. Sometimes, especially for fan-based activities, the producers/owners of copyrighted programming will allow limited use as a form of free advertising. Or, they might ask for a relatively nominal payment as a gesture of good will. Even though the legwork to track these down may involves a large amount of labor on your part, it is much less time-consuming and expensive than being the subject of an infringement lawsuit. Owners of valuable intellectual property have in recent years become very savvy about protecting it and will take action against thieves. Don't do it.

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Answered on 9/06/19, 5:53 pm

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