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New Kids on the Block v. News America Publishing Case Brief

Summary of New Kids on the Block v. News America Publishing, U.S. Ct of App., 1992

Trademark Infringement -Perceived meaning of the mark

Relevant Facts: The individual plaintiffs perform professionally as The New Kids on the Block.  There are more than 500 products or services bearing the New Kids trademark. Fans can call various New Kids 900 numbers to listen to the New Kids talk about themselves, to listen to other fans talk about the New Kids, or to leave messages for the New Kids and other fans. The defendants, two newspapers of national circulation, conducted separate polls of their readers seeking an answer to a pressing question: Which one of the New Kids is the most popular? The announcement listed a 900 number for voting, noted that “any USA Today profits from this phone line will go to charity. Readers were directed to a 900 number to register their votes; each call cost 95 cents per minute.

Legal Issue(s): Whether the newspapers use of the New Kids trademark violates the Lanham Act?

Court’s Holding: No. (1) newspapers were entitled to nominative fair use defense; (2) fact that newspapers used toll numbers to conduct poll which competed with services offered by group did not make df unavailable; 3) musical group did not have claim for intentional interference with respective economic advantage based on newspapers’ fair and reasonable use of mark.

Procedure: Musical group brought suit against newspapers alleging infringement from use of group’s trademark in polls on group’s popularity. The US D Ct, granted newspapers’ motions for summary judgment. Appeal was taken. The Court of Appeals Affirmed.

Law or Rule(s):  Nominative fair use TEST:  First, the product or service in question must be one not readily identifiable without use of the trademark; second, only so much of the mark or marks may be used as is reasonably necessary to identify the product or service; and third, the user must do nothing that would, in conjunction with the mark, suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder.

Court Rationale: The use of a trademark that does not attempt to capitalize on consumer confusion or to appropriate the cachet of one product for a different one is nominative use, it does not constitute unfair competition. 1- It is no more reasonably possible, however, to refer to the New Kids as an entity than it is to refer to the Chicago Bulls, Volkswagens or the Boston Marathon without using the trademark.

2 – The newspapers reference the New Kids only to the extent necessary to identify them as the subject of the polls; they do not use the New Kids’ distinctive logo or anything else that isn’t needed to make the announcements intelligible to readers.

3- There is nothing in the announcements that suggests joint sponsorship or endorsement by the New Kids.

Plaintiff’s Argument: The newspapers’ use of the New Kids name in conducting the unauthorized polls somehow implied that the New Kids were sponsoring the polls.

Defendant’s Argument: Newspaper’s 900 numbers did not competed directly with 900 numbers provided by group, since use of trademark by newspapers did not imply sponsorship or endorsement.

“Fair-use defense” to trademark infringement claim forbids trademark registrant to appropriate descriptive term for exclusive use and prevent others from accurately describing characteristic of their goods.

Unmitigated and designed infringement of the rights of the plaintiffs, for the purpose of defrauding the public and taking from the plaintiffs the fair earnings of their skill, labor and enterprise.” Taylor, 23 F.Cas. at 744. The core protection of the Lanham Act remains faithful to this conception, (prohibiting unauthorized use in commerce of registered marks). Indeed, this area of the law is generally referred to as “unfair competition”–unfair because, by using a rival’s mark, the infringer capitalizes on the investment of time, money and resources of his competitor; unfair also because, by doing so, he obtains the consumer’s hard-earned dollar through something akin to fraud.

Competitors may use rival’s trademark in advertising and other channels of communication if use is not false or misleading. Where defendant uses trademark to describe plaintiff’s product, rather than its own, commercial user is entitled to nominative fair use defense provided that product or service in question is one not really identifiable without use of trademark, only so much of mark or marks may be used as is reasonably necessary to identify product or service, and user must do nothing that would come in conjunction with mark, suggest sponsorship or endorsement by trademark holder. Newspapers are entitled to nominative fair use defense to alleged infringement on musical group’s trademark while conducting polls about group members since there was nothing false or misleading about use of mark, newspapers referred to trademark only as needed to identify group as subject of polls, and nothing suggested joint sponsorship or endorsement by a musical group.

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