Commentary: There's no statuette of limitations on protecting Academy's Oscar brand
EmptyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses the Oscar to measure achievement. Scott Miller uses the Stud of the Year.
"I'm looking at him right here on my bookcase," Miller says proudly of the gold statuette, which might be confused for an Academy Award if it didn't extend a few inches forward in the groin region.
As assistant general counsel for AMPAS and its only in-house lawyer, Miller manages enforcement of the hugely valuable Oscar trademark and copyright -- a job that includes overseeing federal lawsuits against companies like Pipedream Products, which created the well-endowed doppelganger a few years ago.
"I try to keep a sample of all the different knockoffs," he says. "The Stud of the Year is my favorite."
Ensuring Oscar's safety is a year-round job for Miller, who began working in the Academy library to help pay for law school at Southwestern in Los Angeles. He and the group's longtime attorneys at L.A.'s Quinn Emanuel firm handle dozens of intellectual property violations and other matters each month, and they are known in legal circles for being especially aggressive. Recent victims of the Academy's wrath range from a German plunger in the shape of an Oscar to Chinese toilet paper featuring the famously expressionless swordsman. The lawyers scour the Web for domain names that include the word "oscar," make sure souvenirs for sale on Hollywood Boulevard. look just fake enough and intervene whenever someone tries to sell a real Oscar, which is verboten for post-1950 awards.
Cease-and-desist letters resolve most issues, but lead litigator David Quinto says he is handling eight pending Oscar-related lawsuits worldwide, and there's always an uptick in activity this time of year.
Just this week, the Academy settled a case in its favor after a jury had ruled that the estate of Mary Pickford could not sell her best actress award for 1929's "Coquette" because she signed an agreement upon receiving an honorary Oscar in 1976. It filed a new case against an Arizona company for allegedly promoting a luxury travel package that includes two tickets to the Feb. 22 ceremony (the Academy Awards are invitation-only, and tickets are nontransferable). And it closely monitors festivities on Oscar night to make sure nobody gives away knockoff party favors.
It might surprise some Academy members that the nonprofit spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year haggling over its rights. But the strategy, which Miller coordinates with Quinto and 20-year general counsel John Quinn, has produced results.
In 1991, the lawyers convinced the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Oscar copyright, which nobody bothered to register formally until 1941, had not fallen into the public domain. That ruling gave the Academy full ownership of Oscar's body until at least 2036, and it will be protected by trademark law as long as it remains in use.
"When you have a decision like that, it makes enforcement a lot easier," Miller says.
And lucrative. In fall 2007, a cosmetics manufacturer used a photo of Jennifer Hudson holding her Oscar in a holiday catalog, so Quinto persuaded a judge to impound all infringing copies. The case settled for seven figures the next day.
The tactics extend beyond enforcing intellectual property rights. The Academy fought producer Bob Yari all the way to the California court of appeal when Yari challenged Academy rules that excluded him from the podium when "Crash" won best picture in 2006. He lost.
Miller and Quinto note that they never use litigation as a profit center and that their goal is to protect the integrity of the Oscar statuette and the annual event that funds the bulk of the Academy's activities.
Despite their efforts on behalf of the Academy's greatest asset, though, the duo don't sip champagne with the winners on Oscar night.
"I'm generally working," Miller says. "David and I keep an eye on the security operation and help with the private-party arrests. There's a handful each year, mostly people who just want to see if they can crash it."