The Academy Award’s Oscar: Golden or Generic under Trademark Law
By Jeffrey Pietsch
And the Oscar goes too …. This phrase means only one thing to most people: the annual award given to those celebrated actors and actresses at the Academy Awards each February. The eight and a half pound gold plated statue standing thirteen and a half inches tall is as well known as any celebrity, and its name has become synonymous with the show itself. Although the origin of the name is in dispute, the statute has been called Oscar since the 1930’s.
The Oscar name is a registered trademark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and they have vigorously protected the use of their famous mark. Recently, the Academy filed suit against an Italian broadcaster who used the word Oscar in the title of several of their award programs. These shows were broadcast in Italian to subscribers living in the United States. The Academy filed a motion for summary judgment based on the broadcaster’s trademark infringement. This motion was denied by the United States District Court, Central District of California. The judge held that the mark Oscar may be generic in Italian and may not be entitled to trademark protection.
Under trademark law, the quality of a mark’s distinctiveness determines the scope of its protection. Courts have developed four categories to determine a mark’s distinctiveness and, consequently, its strength as a trademark. These categories are (i) coined or arbitrary, (ii) suggestive, (iii) descriptive, and (iv) generic marks. Trademarks that are coined or arbitrary receive the highest protection. Marks such as Kodak or Exxon are examples of coined trademarks. Marks such as Apple for computers or Grey Goose for vodka are examples of arbitrary marks. These marks receive the highest protection since they are inherently distinctive.
One step below coined or arbitrary marks are suggestive marks. Suggestive marks are also inherently distinctive. They are considered weaker than coined or arbitrary marks because the marks suggest some characteristic or quality of the goods or services. With suggestive marks, an individual must use imagination to understand the significance of the marks. Examples of suggestive marks are Greyhound for buses or Mustang for cars. Unlike arbitrary marks, these marks suggest a quality of the goods and services. The suggestion of these two marks denotes speed and quickness.
Falling below suggestive marks are descriptive marks. These are marks that merely describe the good or services. Examples of descriptive marks are Computer Land for a computer store or Park N Fly for airport parking services. These marks are considered weak marks and are only entitled to trademark protection if they have acquired a secondary meaning in the marketplace. An example of a descriptive mark that has acquired secondary meaning is International Business Machines (IBM). IBM is clearly descriptive of its goods and services, but the trademark has acquired secondary meaning through its branding and long history in the marketplace allowing for trademark protection.
The weakest marks and those that are entitled to no protection under trademark law are generic marks. Generic marks describe the general class of goods or services. Simply, the everyday common words for goods and services, such as car or food, are not entitled to trademark protection.
In this case, the judge recognized that Oscar was a strong mark in the United States and should be protected. The judge, however, refused to grant the summary judgment because evidence was presented to show that Oscar in Italian may be a generic term for an award. Since the broadcast was in Italian, the judge found it difficult to prevent an Italian broadcast from using a term that was generic in their own language even if the broadcast was aimed for viewers in the United States. The judge stated, “If the viewers of [the broadcast] perceive the word ‘oscar’ as being a generic term for an award when used in the Italian language, then the Italian award programs using the word ‘oscar’ may not even bring about a mental association with the Plaintiff’s Oscar mark.”
Despite Oscar being a strong mark in the English language, this ruling states that the mark may not be protected against uses in other languages where the mark is a generic term in that language. Since the use of the term Oscar in Italian would evoke the generic sense of the term, it does not infringe on the Academy’s trademark rights.