Bruce Lee's Estate Gets Stiff Roundhouse Kick After Trying To Block Theater Company's Trademark

from the exit-the-dragon dept

Those steeped in ownership culture often have the wrong idea when it comes to trademark laws. In the minds of some, trademark laws can be used like publicity rights laws, wherein a famous somebody -- or that somebody's heirs -- can use that fame to control all uses of references to that somebody for ever and ever. That, of course, is not how trademark laws work. Instead, trademark law is designed to protect the public from confusion by allowing some monopolistic use of names and terms in some markets and only if actual commerce is taking place.

This is a lesson the management company of the late renowned martial arts star Bruce Lee has now learned the hard way. Bruce Lee Enterprises attempted to both block the trademark registration for production company Barisons in the UK, which applied for a mark covering its forthcoming Jun Fan: the Bruce Lee Musical, and also to apply for a "Jun Fan" mark in the theatrical designation itself. Jun Fan, if you're not aware, was the birth name of Bruce Lee.

The problem for BLE is that Barisons had already communicated its intention to put on the show with BLE and defended itself by accusing BLE of registering for its own trademark purely to block the production company's show, without any intention of putting on its own theatrical production.

Barisons claimed that BLE filed its trademark application as a blocking tactic and without any genuine intention to use the mark. As a result, the theatre company opposed the application and argued that it was made in bad faith and should be refused.

BLE filed a counter-statement denying the allegation and said that it filed the application to protect Lee’s IP rights and to expand the Bruce Lee brand in the UK.

In February 2017, Barisons itself filed an application to register ‘Jun Fan the Musical’, also in class 41 in relation to theatre production and musical theatre.

BLE opposed the registration, saying it had already applied for its own mark in that trademark designation, that granting the mark would imply a relationship between Barisons and BLE, and arguing that Barisons made the application in bad faith because BLE had communicated previously that it would oppose the use of Bruce Lee's birth name.

Upon review by the Intellectual Property Office, things did not go well for BLE.

Allan James of the IPO said that BLE had failed to show that the name Jun Fan has a reputation in the UK at the relevant date of the applied-for trademark. James also said that BLE knew that the musical was to be called “Jun Fan: the Bruce Lee Musical”. He added that personality rights do not exist under UK law and that BLE’s trademark application covered the same services that Barisons intended on offering. James said that there was no evidence that BLE’s previous trademark applications covered theatrical shows in any other territories in class 41, and that the estate had no intention of offering such services.

“I therefore find that insofar as it covered theatrical shows in class 41, BLE’s trademark was purely a blocking mechanism to obstruct Barisons’ proposed musical,” said James.

And, thus, ownership culture was, for once, defeated. And it should go without saying that this is a good thing. After all, there is no reason to think that a theater production including the use of Lee's stage or birth names would necessarily cause the public to think that BLE was behind the production at all. Instead, it appears for all the world that Barisons informed BLE of its intent, and then BLE reacted by trying to use trademark law to block them, ostensibly to then extract a licensing fee for the production.

And, again, that isn't what trademark law is for.

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  • identicon
    Pixelation, 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:04pm

    Bruce Lee? Always been a Fan.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nemo, 14 Aug 2018 @ 8:50pm

    I, for one, wasn't aware BLE existed

    At least, not until I read this story. Now I know that they are a greedy basket of dicks, and fiscally stupid, to boot.

    The Bruce Lee legacy isn't exactly hogging the public spotlight, of late. For it to make money, it likely needs little but old movie revenues and some cheap licensing deals. Something like this musical, if successful, might expose a whole new generation to his talent, were BLE supportive of the effort.

    It wouldn't be simple, or even necessarily easy, but BLE /could/ have crafted a deal which let the production company use whatever, while retaining final control. The price of such a deal, however, would have been to allow the production co. keep its profits, if the thing succeeded, and be ready to capitalize on increased interest.

    Instead, BLE took the easy, well-established route: If you make money, we want a free, no-risk cut of it, and we are willing to lose money in court to prevent you from profiting from the basis of our dwindling revenue stream.

    Some people can't bear the thought of others making money off of something that is "theirs". I doubt Christopher Tolkien was pleased by the success of TSR's D&D. From the little I have heard, he's a bit bitter about his father's legacy (the financial side of it, regarding trademark and ownership issues, and to emphasize, I could be wrong), since it draws heavily from JRRT's work. If so, at least he had the good sense to keep his fool mouth shut about it, since D&D also was a marketing force for fantasy book sales.

    BLE doesn't exactly /want/ the entirety of a tiny pie all to itself, mind. What they can't bear is the thought that if the musical becomes a hit, it might drag in more annually than the entirety of its /current/ tiny pie. Increases in the size of the pie are a level removed from that, because the "if it succeeds" for that does not equal the "if it succeeds" for what the other guys might make. In fact, even if the projections were identical FOR BLE, they would view the musical's projected profits as "larger" than their own, simply by virtue of their belief that they should own the lion's share of all Lee-related profits.

    There's a certain illogic to those who would rather have all of a small cake rather than agree to share a much larger cake on top of that, if they didn't gety most of it, even if it increased the size of the cake of their very own, but that's how the human mind works.

    H. Sap. is not a rational animal, but a /rationalizing/ animal. This case is a pervect example of that, as any deveel could tell you - but only for a price.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    K`Tetch (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 10:27pm


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scote, 14 Aug 2018 @ 11:04pm

    Nope. This is an example of ownership culture **succeeding**.

    "And, thus, ownership culture was, for once, defeated."

    Nope. Note even close. This isn't a defeat of ownership culture, merely a ruling about *which corporation* will own the mark to a dead person's name, for which purposes, and in which territory.

    A defeat of ownership culture would have been if the court found "Jun Fan" to be un-tradmarkable and rescinded the mark for all owners and applicants.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2018 @ 12:32am

    License to Extort

    I'm not a true fan of Bruce Lee, but I've probably seen everything he's ever done. I thought Kato was WAY cooler than the the Green Hornet. That said, I'm from the US and had no idea Lee's birth name was "Jun Fan."

    This was entirely about skimming a taste off the top.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 15 Aug 2018 @ 6:36am

    BLE filed a counter-statement denying the allegation and said that it filed the application to protect Lee’s IP rights and to expand the Bruce Lee brand in the UK.

    That is a bit of a cart before the horse, innit? Your IP would be the registration of the mark, after it is approved. Even if you want to go with the worst and most colloquial usage of "IP", your (particularly unknown and unused) name: IP it ain't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Andrei Mincov | Trademark Factory®, 20 Aug 2018 @ 8:29am

    Putting legalese aside for a moment, what's good and fair about strangers being able to use and profit of the name and a story of a dead celebrity without obtaining a permission from an entity set up to benefit the celebrity's heirs? My answer to this question? Nothing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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