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Law School Case Brief

Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. - 539 U.S. 23, 123 S. Ct. 2041 (2003)

Rule:

Reading the phrase "origin of goods" in the Lanham Act in accordance with the Lanham Act's common-law foundations (which were not designed to protect originality or creativity), and in light of the copyright and patent laws (which were), the phrase refers 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. To hold otherwise would be akin to finding that § 43(a) (15 U.S.C.S. § 1125(a)) of the Lanham Act creates a species of perpetual patent and copyright, which Congress may not do.

Facts:

General Dwight D. Eisenhower's World War II book, Crusade in Europe, was published by Doubleday, which registered the work's copyright and granted exclusive television rights to an affiliate of respondent Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (Fox). Fox, in turn, arranged for Time, Inc., to produce a Crusade in Europe television series based on the book, and Time assigned its copyright in the series to Fox. The series was first broadcast in 1949. In 1975, Doubleday renewed the book's copyright, but Fox never renewed the copyright on the television series, which expired in 1977, leaving the series in the public domain. In 1988, Fox reacquired the television rights in the book, including the exclusive right to distribute the Crusade television series on video and to sub-license others to do so. Respondents SFM Entertainment and New Line Home Video, Inc., acquired from Fox the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute Crusade on video. In 1995, petitioner Dastar released a video set, World War II Campaigns in Europe, which it made from tapes of the original version of the Crusade television series and sold as its own product for substantially less than New Line's video set. Fox, SFM, and New Line brought this action alleging, inter alia, that Dastar's sale of Campaigns without proper credit to the Crusade television series constitutes "reverse passing off" in violation of § 43(a) of the Lanham Act. The District Court granted respondents summary judgment. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in relevant part, holding, among other things, that because Dastar copied substantially the entire Crusade series, labeled the resulting product with a different name, and marketed it without attribution to Fox, Dastar had committed a "bodily appropriation" of Fox's series, which was sufficient to establish the reverse passing off.

Issue:

Did Dastar violate § 43(a) of the Lanham Act by allegedly marketing the video as its own product, without acknowledging reliance on the original television series, and thus falsely designated the origin of the video?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that no false designation of origin was shown since the phrase "origin of goods," as used in § 1125(a) did not connote the person or entity that originated the ideas contained in the video, and instead, referred only to the producer's tangible video product. It was of no consequence to consumers whether the producer was the source of the ideas in the video, and the ideas presented by the producer's communicative product were protected, if at all, through the exclusive protections of copyright. Further, § 1125(a) was intended to protect consumers from misleading designations of origin, not to protect creativity or originality, and determining the actual originators of the ideas expressed in the book and the television series would pose serious practical problems.

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