4 Famous Intellectual Property Disputes

by LegalVision - Sophie Mao

Intellectual property (IP) is one of the most valuable commodities for any business. That’s why, when IP rights are breached and disputes go all the way to court, the cases are interesting and commercially relevant. These four famous IP disputes demonstrate the importance of a strong IP protection strategy and the lengths companies will go to defend their brand.

  1. Napster, Peer-to-Peer File Sharing and Copyright Infringement

The American case of A&M Records, Inc v Napster, Inc is one of the most famous in the internet’s early history. Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing network which allowed users to transmit mp3 files. Its huge popularity caused controversy and unrest among major record companies, who took issue with the free transmission of their artists’ copyright protected music. These record companies sued Napster for copyright infringement.

Napster argued that it wasn’t engaging in copyright infringement itself, but simply providing a platform which allowed users to share copies of copyright protected works.

The court didn’t agree with Napster, ruling that the company was liable for the widespread sharing of copyright protected material on its network. Importantly, the Court held that Napster:

  • knew about the widespread and repeated sharing of copyright infringing material in its network;
  • took no steps to reduce the infringement; and
  • benefited financially from the infringing conduct.

Napster’s case is an important reminder for businesses to be aware of how their platforms are used and to remove infringing material transmitted or posted through its systems.

  1. The Battle of the Ugg Boot

The ugg boot is an Australian classic. However, many Australians may not be aware that the term ‘ugg’ has been the subject of some of the most bitterly contested IP battles.

The iconic brand UGG is owned by an American company called Deckers Outdoor Corporation. They have the registered trademark for the brand in over 130 countries. However, the term ‘ugg’ is not registered in Australia, because it’s considered too generic, representing all sheepskin shoes in the footwear industry. Therefore, it isn’t able to distinguish one particular brand, which is a requirement to register a trade mark.

Although local companies are able to market their sheepskin footwear as ugg boots in Australia, Deckers has been fighting to protect their registered trade marks in countries overseas, which prevents Australian companies from exporting their local ‘ugg boots’.

Deckers has filed several lawsuits over the years, alleging trade mark infringement when companies have tried to sell footwear as ‘ugg boots’.  In 2017, Deckers brought an action against the Australian manufacturer Australian Leather for millions of dollars in damages for allegedly breaching their trade mark. Australian Leather said it had lost $20 million in business by not being able to sell its ugg boots overseas because of the Deckers trade marks.

As you can see, the exclusive right to use a trade mark has the potential to earn, or cost, a business millions of dollars.

  1. Copyright Isn’t Monkey Business … Or is it?

In 2011, British photographer David Slater was working in a reserve in Indonesia when he noticed a macaque monkey was using his camera to take ‘selfies’. These selfies were later published by Slater and received considerable acclaim and press attention. However, these selfies also resulted in one of the strangest IP dispute cases.

In 2014, Slater asked Wikipedia to remove the selfie of the monkey (named Naruto) it had published, claiming he owned copyright in the image. Wikipedia fought back, arguing that the image was in the public domain because the monkey took the photo and monkeys can’t own copyright. Wikipedia said that this meant no one, including Slater, had exclusive copyright ownership of the image.

Animal rights group PETA brought a lawsuit against Slater in 2015 on behalf of Naruto. PETA claimed that Naruto was the copyright owner of the image because the selfie was taken by the “purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Mr Slater, resulting in original works of authorship not by Mr Slater, but by Naruto”.

The final decision stated that US copyright law doesn’t “authorise animals to file copyright infringement suits”, ruling in Slater’s favour. Whether the same verdict would be reached in Australia or other jurisdictions is yet to be seen.

In a time when creating images is easier than ever, Naruto’s case demonstrates that claims to originality and copyright authorship may get trickier and trickier.

  1. Apple and Samsung’s Patently Expensive IP Dispute

This lengthy and expensive patent infringement case between two technology heavyweights rested on Apple’s claims that Samsung infringed its iPhone design patents and used the copied features for its own phones.

Apple’s case was that it should have exclusive use of its innovative designs, including a rectangular front face, rounded edges and a grid of app icons displayed on the screen.

Samsung wanted to limit the scope of Apple’s design patents, arguing that a ruling in Apple’s favour would “hinder creativity and fair competition”.

The verdict was eventually in Apple’s favour. The Supreme Court of the United States ordered Samsung to pay $539 million in damages due to its patent infringement.

Apple and Samsung’s dispute teaches us the importance of a good patent strategy and the high price tag of infringement.

Key Takeaways

Protecting your IP can come with huge commercial advantages for your business. It can stop other businesses using your popular branding, creations and designs to market their own products.

These four famous IP disputes demonstrate the high value businesses place on protecting their respective brands. These brand versus brand disputes are hugely expensive and time-consuming battles, yet these companies feel that their IP is worth the cost of the fight to protect it. However, well-known IP disputes also teach us the risk of infringement. It may be tempting to copy, but defending a court case comes with an often very high price tag. If you need assistance protecting your defending your brand, get in touch with LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 1300 544 755.


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