2 March 2018Copyright

Piracy, swag bags and cybersquatting: IP infringement at the Oscars

With this year’s Oscars just around the corner, WIPR looks at the IP infringement issues that have threatened to upstage the awards ceremony over the years.

The ceremony, officially called the Academy Awards, will be held on Sunday, March 4.

1. Copyright accusations

This year’s contender “ The Shape of Water”, which tells the story of a cleaner at a top secret research facility forming a relationship with an amphibious creature being held in captivity, was hit with accusations of copyright infringement last week.

The film, which has 13 Oscar nominations, has allegedly copied a 1969 play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel.

The play, “Let Me Hear You Whisper”, centres on a lonely female cleaner who forms a relationship with an “aquatic creature of advanced intelligence (a dolphin)” at a secret scientific lab.

“Although the picture has struck a chord with audiences worldwide, filmgoers familiar with Zindel’s play have roundly recognised the picture as copying the Play, and have publicly criticised its creators for not crediting Zindel’s work,” said the claim, which was filed at the US District Court for the Central District of California by Zindel’s son.

Guillermo Del Toro, director of the film, refuted the claims to entertainment news site Deadline.

“I have never read nor seen the play,” del Toro told Deadline. “I’d never heard of this play before making ‘The Shape of Water’, and none of my collaborators ever mentioned the play.”

2. Swag Bag Anger

Less than two weeks before the 2016 ceremony, the organisers of the event, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against a marketing company.

The reason: Distinctive Assets had been promoting “Oscars Swag Bags”, which contained expensive gifts including a sex toy, a marijuana vaporiser and a “vampire breast lift”, were reportedly worth $200,000.

Distinctive Assets intended to hand out the bags to all attendees at the Oscars, but AMPAS complained that the marketing company’s actions caused confusion.

In March, AMPAS secured a permanent injunction against Distinctive Assets. The company now calls its unofficial swag bags the “Everyone Wins” gift.

3. Back to copyright claims

Historical drama “12 Years a Slave”, a nine-times nominated and three-time winner of an Oscar award, has also been embroiled in copyright controversy.

Composer Richard Friedman sued German composer Hans Zimmer over Zimmer’s composition used in the film.

Friedman claimed that the main theme tune, the closing credits and eleven other “musical cues” in “12 Years a Slave” were infringing.

A year and a half later, in August 2016, Friedman apologised to Zimmer and dropped the suit, according to Billboard.

4. Pirates ahead

Perhaps unsurprisingly, online movie piracy shot up after the nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced.

Media protection company Irdeto claimed that piracy increased by 385% worldwide. The statistics applied to BitTorrent-based piracy of films nominated for awards in the Oscars’ Best Picture category and those films whose actors or directors were nominated for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.

“Gone Girl” was the most pirated film before the nominations were announced, but then “American Sniper”, one of the nominees for Best Picture, took the lead after January 15.

This year, BBC Trending, the BBC bureau that reports on social media, claimed that it’s noticed a “surge of online chatter as high-quality copies of the leading contenders are leaked in bulk”.

Leonardo DiCaprio had a big year in 2016—the six-time Oscar nominated actor finally won the award for his performance in “The Revenant”.

It was not so much of a success for one US man, who was ordered to pay $1 million for illegally posting screener versions of “The Revenant” and “The Peanuts Movie” to a publicly accessible website.

“The Revenant” was made available for download six days before its limited release, causing Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation to suffer losses of well over $1 million, said the Department of Justice.

5. Organisers go to war with GoDaddy

Back in 2010, AMPAS took on domain name registrar GoDaddy, alleging that the company had showed “bad faith intent to profit” from 293 domains that were registered by third parties. AMPAS sought almost $30 million in damages.

The registrations contain variations on the term ‘Oscars’ and ‘Academy’, terms the Academy owns US registered trademarks for.

According to AMPAS, the domains in question were parked pages, used solely for pay-per-click advertising, and although the domains are registered by a third party, GoDaddy should be liable for cybersquatting because it profits from the services.

In a ruling handed down in September 2015, Judge Andre Birotte of the US District Court for the Central District of California was not persuaded by the Academy’s claims.

The Academy appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but the case was dismissed in February 2016.

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More on this story

19 February 2016   The organiser of the annual Oscars ceremony has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit centring on the “Oscars Swag Bags” that are being promoted by a marketing company.
23 February 2015   Online movie piracy increased by 385% worldwide after the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards ceremony were announced, a report has shown.
20 May 2020   The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been refused copyright protection for its logo featuring the Oscar statuette.