DC Opposes Trademark Application For 'Algorithmic Justice League' For Some Reason

from the where-are-the-good-guys? dept

DC Comics, the company behind some of our most beloved superheroes, has built a reputation for itself for playing the supervillain when it comes to intellectual property disputes. Chiefly at issue tends to be trademark law, which DC views as some kind of overarching right for it to not allow any other entity to hold a trademark that even remotely overlaps with its own established marks. DC has taken this to absurd levels, opposing trademark applications that couldn’t possibly be confused with its own properties, even as many of its marks are very, very well known.

This continues to the present. Most recently, DC has decided to oppose the trademark application for a group founded by MIT’s Joy Buolamwini to spotlight the negative consequences of certain technologies, which she dubbed The Algorithmic Justice League.

Buolamwini filed in 2017 for a US trademark on Algorithmic Justice League, saying she had used the name for more than a year on projects that “promote awareness of and combat bias in algorithms as used in artificial intelligence.” In June, DC lawyers filed to oppose the registration.

DC claims consumers may confuse the group’s work on AI algorithms with its superhero collective Justice League, founded in 1960 by Wonder Woman and six others. “Such false assumptions will cause injury and harm,” the company’s filing says. It cites 10 trademarks related to the Justice League that mostly predate Buolamwini’s application, covering such uses as comic books, movies, mouse pads, and “adhesive plastic bandages for skin wounds.”

DC’s own citations point to the absurdity in all of this. Namely that none of the marks held by DC remotely bleed into the work that Buolamwini is doing. The closest you could get would be the view that some members of the public might see her as a superhero in her own right, attempting to head off the dangers of AI and algorithms. Other than that, it’s difficult to see where the public is going to be confused between superheroes and this kind of technological research.

DC, as it typically does, goes to great lengths to point out that its marks are super-famous and therefore deserving of expanded protection.

Fictional beings capable of flight or freakish strength might seem hard to confuse with the real-world work of Buolamwini—whose abilities appear to be 100 percent human. To draw attention to the potential harms of AI technology she has written code, published academic research, and presented her findings in a TED talk, congressional testimony, and spoken word poetry.

Yet DC is a powerful foe, standing on reasonable legal ground. “The more famous the mark, the broader the protection,” says Alan Fisch, an intellectual property lawyer with the firm Fisch Sigler.

Labeling this as reasonable is probably a stretch. Famous or not, there are limits to the expanded protections available to well known trademarks. And, I would argue, DC’s Justice League marks are certainly different than its truly famous marks. Had, for instance, this group been called the Algorithmic Supermen, we might be having a slightly different conversation. But the deviation in the markets and the name chosen don’t lend themselves to claims of potential confusion.

But DC’s going to DC, I suppose. It would just be nice to see the company play superhero instead of villain for once.

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Companies: dc comics

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Comments on “DC Opposes Trademark Application For 'Algorithmic Justice League' For Some Reason”

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23 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

That reminds me!

How low do they think the bar is for infringement.

"That reminds me of x" appears to be their threshold for launching into a legal battle.

If it cannot be they think the court is as uninformed as the general public about what constitutes infringement, then perhaps it is merely signalling that they are highly litigious.

All comers be warned. Their calling card is meant to scare us.

MathFox says:

Re: That reminds me!

To me the opposition also does not make sense… except for the lawyers that make money regardless of the decision about the trademark.

It makes me wonder whether the DC-lawyers hold the interest of their client above their own financial interests. (And it makes me want to see the contracts between lawyers and DC Comics.)

Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I haven’t had cause to visit this dump in a while. I just wasn’t being paid enough to correct MM’s persistent stupidity. Anyways, it’s good to be back and I see from the low quality article and the comments that no one here has gotten any smarter.

So let’s start with the headline. DC opposes a mark that uses the phrase "Justice League" for "some reason." Yeah, it’s a total mystery why they might care about those two words. Because those two words are just two random words that have no other meaning or association.

Now let’s get to TG’s premise. DC shouldn’t have broad rights in the phrase "Justice League," but it’s okay for some nobody to get exclusive rights to the phrase "Algorithmic Justice League" so they can stop others from using that phrase. I’d ask for an explanation, but I know I won’t get one. DC baaaaaaad; SJW goooooood.

I’ll make it simple for the people reading this post — it’s not fair to let her take advantage of all the goodwill that DC has associated with that phrase over the past 80 years, and you don’t get to make exceptions because you like what she’s doing. How would you feel if INS rebranded itself as the "Immigration Justice League"? Can Pornhub rebrand itself as the "TechDirt of Porn"?

The clearest sign that I’m right is that she didn’t apply for a trademark that uses MIT’s name. Why not? She’s at MIT now, apparently works in the Media Lab as a digital poet. Why not the "MIT Media Lab Group for Algorithmic Fairness"? Because MIT would fire her ass in five seconds for the exact same thing that DC is complaining about now.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"it’s not fair to let her take advantage of all the goodwill that DC has associated with that phrase over the past 80 years"

You are absolutely right. Totally not fair. If trademark law was about fairness, you would have a great argument here, but it is about customer confusion. Are you under the impression that her work has anything to do with DC comics?

Qwertygiy says:

Minor quibble: fame doesn't matter

I think the idea briefly mentioned about Justice League being less famous, and thus less protectable, than Superman, is incorrect on numerous counts.

For one, "famousness" is a hard thing to determine, but in comic sales, box office results, and cartoon popularity rankings, Batman beats Justice League beats Superman, all of which are in the top percentile of their peers. (In regards to other media in the same categories, not necessarily other fictional characters.) In terms of overall search results, "Batman" has 481,000,000 google hits; "Superman" has 239,000,000, and "Justice League" 146,000,000. (just for giggles, "donald trump" has 437,000,000, "spider-man" has 340,000,000, "obama" has 339,000,000, "freedom of speech" has 54,200,000, "alex jones" has 9,700,000, "techdirt" has 477,000, "wikipedia" has… uh… 10? no, seriously, 10.)

For another, it really doesn’t matter how famous you are. Your trademark is only good in markets you’ve registered that trademark with. Monster Energy is pretty well-known, but look at how many times they’ve gone after someone in trademark court and been smacked down. Even McDonald’s lost a trademark on Big Mac when they clearly marketed a product named Big Mac that has infamy around the globe… just not a type of restaurant named Big Mac.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Minor quibble: fame doesn't matter

For one, "famousness" is a hard thing to determine, but in comic sales, box office results, and cartoon popularity rankings, Batman beats Justice League beats Superman, all of which are in the top percentile of their peers.

  1. You’re mistaken about box office results. Man of Steel grossed more than Justice League. (And anyway, there’s only been one Justice League movie; even if it had outgrossed MoS, it would be silly to use that data point as evidence that Justice League is more famous than Superman. Would you say Aquaman is more famous than Superman? What about Captain Marvel, the Black Panther, and the Guardians of the Galaxy? All of those movies outperformed Man of Steel at the box office, but it would be absurd to claim that those characters are more famous than Superman.)
  2. In terms of merchandising and brand recognition, everybody knows what the "S" shield is but most people can’t tell you what the Justice League logo looks like. I’ll agree that Batman is more famous than Superman, but I don’t buy that the Justice League is. (Not for nothin’, the Justice League is most famous for…having Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman in it.)

Even McDonald’s lost a trademark on Big Mac when they clearly marketed a product named Big Mac that has infamy around the globe… just not a type of restaurant named Big Mac.

That was a procedural fuckup, though; McDonald’s’ lawyers failed to demonstrate that McDonald’s sells Big Macs in the EU (presumably they felt they didn’t need to).

Fame is a component in trademark infringement analysis. It’s not the only component; you’re correct that what market a mark is used in is also a component. Usually, the market is more important than the fame, but there are exceptions; I expect if you tried to sell Kleenex brand prescription eyewear, that wouldn’t pass muster in the courts, even if Kleenex does not sell prescription eyewear.

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