Intellectual Property + Politics = Lawsuits

Intellectual property rights used to be an esoteric concept to most people. But as more people become creators, they’ve learned more about this bundle of rights. It’s easier to see how they apply in real life.

But sometimes there are still surprises. Creations become misappropriated in an unexpected way. Good intentions can backfire. And as with many other fields, IP case law ends up being shaped largely by politics and current events.

Like these recent cases:

Cartoon Frog Becomes a Hate Symbol

Have you ever heard of Pepe the Frog? (If he doesn’t sound familiar, do a quick image search online. You’ll probably recognize him.)

Pepe started out in a comic strip, the same way many other hand-drawn characters do. But over time, he became more popular… more widely disseminated… and somehow, a symbol for the alt right. (Though he’s only been around since 2005, Pepe has had an interesting history and evolution.)

Within the past few years, more and more memes featuring Pepe as a white nationalist have been created and shared. In fall 2016, a number of news outlets reported on Pepe’s association with the alt right movement. Of course, this brought the character’s negative connotations further into the spotlight.

Matt Furie, Pepe’s creator, issued a statement through his publisher, Fantagraphics, speaking out against the use of the Pepe character in this manner. “[T]he one, true Pepe the frog, as created by the human being and artist Matt Furie, is a peaceful cartoon amphibian who represents love, acceptance, and fun,” the publisher said.

Furie also teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League to do a #SavePepe hashtag campaign encouraging people to create and share positive images of Pepe on social media.

But associations can be stubborn, and Pepe continued to be an alt right symbol. So when Furie found out about a cartoonist selling oil paintings showing Pepe in violent and politically charged situations, he sued. (The case recently settled.)

And he recently sued again. This time, he’s targeting a much larger defendant: the alt right website The suit stems from a promotional poster for the website that’s available for purchase. The poster features the likenesses of Infowars founder Alex Jones, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos… and Pepe (among others).

The suit alleges one count of copyright infringement. Furie is seeking financial damages (he licenses the Pepe character to other companies) along with an injunction.

Infowars’ Jones hasn’t responded to the complaint as of the time of this writing. But he has told the press that the poster is an expression of political speech protected by the First Amendment.

Microsoft vs. the Environment?

Eric Lundgren is an entrepreneur, inventor, environmentalist, philanthropist… and possibly, a criminal.

Lundgren began fixing and reusing computer parts during his teen years in Washington. By the time he was 19, he’d moved to Los Angeles and started an electronics recycling company.

Within the next 14 years, he went on to launch a facility that turns discarded electronics into functioning technology. And not just refurbished factory versions: Lundgren built a car from recycled electronics parts that outperformed Tesla in a road test.

His company processes 41 million pounds of e-waste annually. His donation of 14,000 cellphones to “Cellphones for Soldiers” and his efforts to help clean up e-waste in Ghana and China show that he cares about people as well as the planet.

But now Lundgren’s desire to help has landed him in trouble.

His legal issues relate to restore discs, which help computer buyers reinstall their operating system if their computer crashes or needs to be reset. Restore discs can only be used on computers that already have licensed Windows software. They’re usually provided at the time a new computer is purchased or can be downloaded from the computer manufacturer’s website.

Lundgren recently manufactured 28,000 of these discs – without Microsoft’s approval.

Not for profit, he said, but because of Microsoft’s planned obsolescence for certain computers. Over time, technology companies encourage buyers to spend money on new products by phasing out support for the older ones. The result is extra e-waste – another computer disposed of that pollutes both air and water when it’s burned.

Lundgren had hoped that by duplicating the restore discs, he’d save computer owners from unnecessarily trashing their old computers that could still be functional. Instead, he found himself on the receiving end of a software piracy lawsuit.

The court overseeing the case determined that the discs were worth $700,000 – an amount that came with a $50,000 fine and a 15-month prison term for Lundgren. However, in an unusual move, the appellate court granted his request to remain free while he appeals.

Do you have questions about intellectual property?

Do you have questions about your own intellectual property rights as related to someone else’s? Our firm regularly handles both transactions and disputes around copyrights, trademarks, and patents. To learn how to protect your IP, contact us or call for your free consultation.

Please note: this blog is intended to provide general information which should not be taken as legal advice.

Original article posted on our dedicated blog on March 16, 2018