Viacom Battling The Situation Over Who Owns 'GTL,' ‘Twinning’

The Situation 2011

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A Jersey Shore catfight is brewing far from Seaside Heights. MTV owner Viacom has taken on Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino over trademarks to the catchphrases he utters on the hit show.

Viacom is opposing the trademark registration of the word "twinning" by MPS Entertainment, the company that Sorrentino owns with his brother. In new papers filed at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, Viacom suggests that it own any catchphrases Sorrentino comes up with on the show.

Before Sorrentino was a big reality star, he signed the kind of onerous deal that so many wannabe reality stars do in the interest of becoming famous.

In his Participant Agreement with 495 Productions, producer of Jersey Shore, he granted the rights in "all ideas, gags, suggestions, themes, plots, stories, characters, characterizations, dialogue, text, designs, graphics, titles, drawings, artwork, digital works, songs, music, photography, video, film and other material whether or not fixed or reduced to drawing or writing, at any time heretofore or hereafter created or contributed by me which in any way relate to ["Jersey Shore"]… ."

The show hit it big, and Sorrentino signed an amended contract with a paragraph that stated, "The above language shall not in any way limit any previous grant of rights to the Producer."

And in case Sorrentino didn't get the message, this parenthetical was added: "e.g., the above language shall not be construed to grant to Artist or otherwise allow Artist the right to issue T-shirts featuring Artist's quotes from the series."

Nevertheless, Sorrentino’s company with his brother has sought to capitalize on phrases from the show. The branding has been highly lucrative. MPS Entertainment has inked deals for a clothing line with Dilligaf, endorsements with Vitamin Water and Reebok and a  “GTL” app on iTunes. Sorrentino made about $5 million in 2010 and became so protective of his sloganeering empire that in November, he sued Abercrombie & Fitch for selling T-shirts with the words "The Fitchuation" and "GTL … You Know the Deal.”

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But Viacom wants to put a stop to it.

Last week, Viacom told the Trademark Board that the series has led to many "catchphrases" including "gym, tanning, laundry," "grenade" (an unattractive young woman), "creep" (picking up women at a bar), "robbery" (stealing a friend's date), "female backpack" (a clingy girlfriend), "lean cuisine" (a fit but slender man), "pounding it out" (sex) and "smush" (more sex).

Another one of those slogans was "twinning," the result of a Jersey Shore episode that first aired on April 18, 2011. In that episode, one of the show’s interviewers asked him, “Is it a twin for the win right now?” Sorrentino responded, “Winning. Twinning. Now, that’s a good one. Oh, man, that’s a good one, yeah. That’s, that’s good one, twinning. Twinning, that’s a good one.”

Good enough for MPS to file a registration on it, with the intent to use it on T-shirts, on Aug. 22, 2011.

On Aug. 15, Viacom spelled out why Sorrentino can't trademark it and exploit it commercially: "Under the terms of the Participant Agreement Form, all rights in any intellectual property relating to Jersey Shore belonged to 495 Productions Inc., the production company which creates the programs in the Series, which in turn assigned those rights by separate contract to Remote Productions Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom. Therefore, Viacom is the rightful owner of all rights in and to the 'twinning' mark and slogan."

Sorrentino and MPS couldn't be reached for comment.

The development potentially represents a blow to the reality star's ongoing lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch. After Sorrentino sued A&F, the clothing retailer hit back by claiming his marks were weak, even mentioning that Viacom was the rightful owner. Since then, Sorrentino has sent mixed signals in that case about his hold over trademarks like "GTL."

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For example, as described by attorneys for A&F this month, Sorrentino dropped his claim that the retailer violated his rights to "GTL." At that point, A&F backed off on subpoena demands upon third party Viacom/MTV to produce documents. But now, Sorrentino is said to be hoping to reintroduce "GTL" trademark infringement claims against A&F, leading attorneys for the retailer to cry foul.

Meanwhile, Viacom definitely is interested in making money off of Jersey Shore slogans. The company tells the trademark appeals board that it has licensed marks from the show to Zazzle, offers shirts for sale on MTV's website and is planning on using "Twinning" on baseball caps.

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