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IDA Files Amicus Brief in Support of Trademark Use in Film Title

By Michael Donaldson

A federal court in Texas confirmed last month that the First Amendment protects filmmakers who use the trademarks or service marks of others in the title of a film, as long as the use describes the content of the film and does not indicate that the film is sponsored by or affiliated with the owners of the marks.

It happened in a case in which IDA filed an amicus brief in support of producers who had used the name "Rin Tin Tin," a valuable trademark, in the title of a film about the real Rin Tin Tin. Michael Donaldson, former President of the International Documentary Association (IDA), organized a united coalition of independent film organizations in support of the brief, gaining the assistance of Michael Morales, General Counsel for the IDA, and Susan Cleary, who signed the brief on behalf of the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA). Donaldson is also General Counsel of Film Independent and signed on their behalf.

An amicus brief is written by a non-partisan amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," who offers information on a point of law or some other aspect of the case to assist the court in deciding the matter before it. IDA argued on behalf of First Look Studios, the producers behind the film Finding Rin Tin Tin: The Adventure Continues. IDA told the court that filmmakers should be able to use trademarks in the title of their films if that's the best way to describe the content of the film.

In analyzing the film's use of "Rin Tin Tin," the court held that the use of the name in the title and body of the film constituted a "fair use" because it is not used in a trademark fashion--that is, as an identifier of the source of goods--and therefore was protected by the First Amendment. While the court did not rely on the IDA brief to make its decision, many of the First Amendment principles that the IDA argued in its brief were reflected in the court's 16-page decision.

Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd dog who became famous after he starred in several major motion pictures in the 1920s. Rin Tin Tin, Inc., a company focused on maintaining the "Rin Tin Tin" lineage, owns several "Rin Tin Tin" trademarks and came after the creators of Finding Rin Tin Tin, a fictional film based on the real-life story of Rin Tin Tin, after it was released on DVD in 2008.

The court noted that the use of the term "Rin Tin Tin" described the content of the film-- the historical story of the famous dog--rather than as a "source identifier," which would have created an improper insinuation of sponsorship by Rin Tin Tin, Inc., the trademark holder. 

The decision looks to be a great boon for filmmakers (especially documentarians) who find themselves in the relatively common situation in which the use of the trademark is really the best way to describe a film. In those situations, filmmakers shouldn't have to worry about overzealous trademark owners trying to shut down free speech.


For the complete Court ruling, click here.