Guest post by Lucas S. Osborn, Associate Professor of Law at Campbell University School of Law. He will be visiting at Denver University School of Law for 2016-17.
Digital technology continues its collision with intellectual property law, this time in BMW’s lawsuit against the online virtual modeling company TurboSquid. TurboSquid sells digital 3D models of various items for use by game developers, architects, visual effects studios, etc.
This case is paradigmatic of a project Mark McKenna and I are working on, which analyzes trademarks in the context of digital goods. BMW complains that TurboSquid’s “marketing of 3-D virtual models” of BMW vehicles infringes BMW’s trademarks, trade dress, and design patents. Specifically, it complains that TurboSquid “markets and tags BMW-trademarked 3-D virtual models of BMW vehicles as suitable for games.”
Interestingly, although some of BMW’s registrations cover “miniature toy vehicles,” “interactive game programs,” and “scale model vehicles,” none of the registrations covers virtual models of vehicles. BMW also alleges that it “licenses its trademarks and patented designs for use in 3-D virtual models for computer games.”
BMW’s claims of infringement raise conceptual difficulties. Does selling a virtual object directly infringe a trademark or design patent that contemplates, or is in fact limited to, a physical good?
In thinking about trademark infringement, the core analysis focuses on whether the digital file is a good about which there is confusion as to source, sponsorship, or the like. Confusion might arise from at least three mechanisms. First, TurboSquid might create a website environment that looks as if it is a BMW-sanctioned website, such as by using a domain name like BMW.net or by designing the webpage to suggest that it is affiliated with BMW. The TurboSquid website does not do this.
Second, TurboSquid might cause confusion through the external labels attached to each file. If the file name/description read, “BMW authorized model of BMW X3,” TurboSquid would falsely suggest an affiliation or source. But its external file labels read simply, “BMW X3” and the like. BMW will doubtless argue that this external file labeling provides an indication of source or affiliation, but is this so? Arguably the external description is nominative or descriptive because it merely describes what the file is, i.e., a model of a BMW car. Of course, TurboSquid could change all the external file descriptions to eliminate the potential confusion (i.e., “unauthorized model of BMW X3”), but courts should balance the burden on TurboSquid and the effects on user search costs against any evidence of the extent of actual or potential confusion.
Deciding whether the external file description creates confusion or instead is nominative bleeds into the third potential argument for confusion, which is that the content of the digital file itself causes the confusion. That is, BMW will argue that since the content of the digital file displays a BMW logo on the car, the purchaser will be confused as to source or sponsorship. The Supreme Court, however, seemingly foreclosed this argument in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 539 U.S. 23 (2003). Dastar directs that a court should not use the content of the digital file to inform the confusion analysis.
Dastar copied footage from Fox’s Crusade in Europe television series and reused portions of that footage in its own videos without attribution to Fox. Id. at 26-27. Fox alleged Dastar committed reverse passing off in violation of § 43(a) of the Lanham Act by representing Fox’s content as its own. Id. at 27. The Supreme Court rejected Dastar’s claim, holding that “origin of goods” refers only to the “producer of the tangible goods that are offered for sale, and not to the author of any idea, concept, or communication embodied in those goods. Id. at 37.
The Court was concerned that allowing claims for reverse passing off in the context of copyrightable works “would create a species of mutant copyright law” that would conflict with the Federal copyright regime. Id. at 34. Dastar’s concern about conflicts between copyright and trademark law channels courts away from finding confusion based on the content of expressive works. See generally Mark P. McKenna, Dastar’s Next Stand, 19 J. Intell. Prop. L. 357 (2012). Thus, the content of TurboSquid’s files cannot form the basis of the confusion. The content of the files is protected, if at all, by some other form of intellectual property law, such as copyright.
Even assuming there is no point-of-sale confusion with the purchase of the digital file, TurboSquid cannot drive away freely just yet; it must contend with post-sale confusion. Post-sale confusion protects trademark owners when there is no point-of-sale confusion because the purchaser of the good knows it is fake. Courts have found that confusion can arise after a sale when the individual wears the infringing good in public, causing observers to see the branded item and become confused about whether it is genuine or not.
TurboSquid’s purchasers obviously will not wear the digital files in public. Nevertheless, they will use the files in downstream productions such as video games, and thus BMW also alleged there will be post-sale confusion. However, use of the models in expressive works like games and other video productions will not likely lead to an actionable trademark claim because the First Amendment protections provided to expressive works would likely trump any trademark claim. See, e.g., Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989); E.S.S. Entm’t 2000, Inc. v. Rock Star Videos, Inc., 547 F.3d 1095 (9th Cir. 2008). Moreover, once again Dastar suggests that any potential confusion generated from the content of the video game or other expressive work is irrelevant under the Lanham Act.
Trademark law arose in a world of physical goods to protect manufacturers and prevent consumer confusion as to who manufactured the goods. In a digital world, manufacturing will increasingly be done, if at all, by individuals with 3D printers. Other digital models, such as TurboSquid’s BMW models, will never exist as physical objects. Where consumers care about the quality of a digital file, trademark law can protect consumers from being deceived by indicia external to the file. But if purchasers are not confused about the source of the digital file based on external indicia, courts should channel any other potential claims (if any) to other areas of intellectual property law.