by Lauren S. Aldredge

Earlier this year, the Arlington Police Department (“APD”) learned that the logo displayed on its police cars had been imported into the Grand Theft Auto V video game. Apparently, a third-party graphics company had uploaded APD’s vehicle graphics and badges into the game and users could customize their vehicles to make them look like actual APD police cars. Users could then upload videos of themselves playing the game as APD police officers onto YouTube.

APD was understandably alarmed about the fact that someone could upload their graphics onto a virtual police car and then post a video of that police car or police officer doing any number of things – many of them illegal in the real world. Thankfully, APD had filed for trademark and copyright protection of its graphics and was able to send a cease-and-desist letter to the graphics designers, who pulled the images from the game.

Whether they know it or not, many other police department graphics have been uploaded into the game. On YouTube, there are clips showing renderings of Dallas and Fort Worth police vehicles in gameplay. With the ubiquitous use of third party graphics designers, there is almost no limit to what a user can upload into the game and post on the internet. Without trademark or copyright protection, it can be difficult to protect and control the use of yours or your client’s proprietary information. Federal trademark and copyright protection gives you the legal teeth needed to police the unauthorized use of intellectual property, and if necessary, take offenders to court and recover significant statutory penalties.

Trademark Protection

Trademark protection covers “words, names, symbols, sounds or colors” to distinguish from goods or services manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods or services. This means that you can register a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to cover a business name, slogan, logo or other items that distinguish your goods or services from others. In the case of the APD, it registered a trademark for its vehicle graphics. But trademark protection can extend to almost anything that relates to “branding.”

Federally registering your trademark is a somewhat involved process that includes filing an application with the USPTO and providing a trademark specimen (usually, a photograph of your mark in use). Once your application is filed, it will be examined by a USPTO trademark agent and (hopefully) approved for publication in the Gazette – a sort of public notice to all comers that your mark is now in effect. It is not the quickest process, and timelines for approval of even the simplest and most unique marks can take up to a year. However, registration of your trademark with the USPTO confers a number of benefits. It gives you the right to use the mark nationwide and enables you to bring an infringement suit in federal court against a party that is using your mark without your authorization. You can seek treble damages, attorneys’ fees, injunctions, percentage of any profits made off your mark, and other statutory remedies that only apply if a mark is federally registered.

If you’re concerned about the potential unauthorized use of your proprietary information, we can help you decide if registering for a trademark is the right option for you. We can also help you put a monitoring plan in place to identify any potential unauthorized uses of your information.

Copyright Protection

Copyrights protect original “literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic” works. This can include commissioned studies, reports, publications, policy manuals, and the like. Unlike trademarks, copyrights attach at the moment of creation. For example, once you finish your “great American novel,” it is considered copyrighted. What matters for enforcement of your copyright, however, is federal registration of your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. It is a fairly simple registration process that involves filling out a form, paying a small fee, and providing a copy of the work to be copyrighted.

Without federally registering your copyright, you cannot bring an infringement suit against unauthorized uses of your material, and you can only recover damages from the date of registration. As with trademarks, there are significant statutory penalties that apply for infringement of federally registered copyrights.
If you’re concerned about the potential unauthorized use of your copyrighted material, or if you are unsure of whether you have federally registered your copyright, then we can help answer your questions and devise strategies to ensure you are in the best legal position to protect yourself against potential infringers and unauthorized uses of your material.

By federally registering its trademarks and copyrights, APD put itself in the best position to protect its proprietary information and effectively police unauthorized use. The trademark and copyright processes can be difficult to navigate and understand, but as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Please contact our office if you need help getting started.

Lauren Sprouse is an Associate in the Firm’s Litigation and Employment Law Practice Groups. Lauren is a registered patent attorney who represents clients in all phases of litigation. If you would like additional information or have questions related to this article, please contact Lauren at 512.322.5808 or lsprouse@lglawfirm.com.

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