"Two Thumbs Up..." Oops, am I allowed to say that?

My friend is the editor in chief of a college newspaper, and one of her writers recently reviewed the movie Rent and wrote that she gave it two thumbs up. She and the writer both received a letter from the lawyers of Siskel and Ebert saying that the phrase ‘two thumbs up’ is copyrighted and they must ‘cease and desist’ to use this phrase in the newspaper, otherwise the firm will take legal action against them. While it’s virtually impossible to take legal action against a college newspaper, how far does this copyright extend? Can you say ‘two big thumbs up?’ ‘two toes up?’ Do these lawyers seriously have nothing better to do than to research who uses the phrase? And since when does it have a copyright symbol on it?

Well, Gene Siskel has been dead for six years. You must be thinking of Ebert and Roeper. :slight_smile:

Anyway …

“Two Thumbs Up” is a registered service mark of:

(REGISTRANT) Ebert Company, Ltd., The CORPORATION ILLINOIS 108 W. Grand Avenue Chicago ILLINOIS 60610

(REGISTRANT) Siskel Productions, Ltd. CORPORATION ILLINOIS 108 W. Grand Avenue Chicago ILLINOIS 60610

Source: http://www.uspto.gov/
Why do you say, “it’s virtually impossible to take legal action against a college newspaper?” Says who?

May I suggest spending some time studying copyright law (and trademarks as well). Unfortunately as a FGuest you cannot search the numerous threads here arguing about copyrights, especially when discussing songs, music, downloading songs, software, etc.

It’s unlikely they said the phrase was ‘copyrighted’ because as you surmise that doesn’t mean much for a short phrase. However, “Two thumbs up” is a trademarked phrase, and as such only applies in a specific field. In this case, according to the US PTO :

G & S: television programs and appearances in the field of motion picture critiques.

It makes a lot of sense for this. You can imagine a terrible movie being advertised as “TWO THUMBS UP!!!” with -Joe Blow, Podunk U. Herald following behind (no offense to your friend’s taste in movies). They also have to protect the trademark every chance they get (I imagine nowadays they just do a search on reviews to find them).

One need only visit the Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org) to find that it’s certainly NOT virtually impossible to bring legal action against a college newspaper.

It’s entirely possible to take legal action against a college newspaper. Not unlikely, either - what better time to fire a shot across the bow of all fledgling journalists and warn them that there are people out there who will defend their copyrights?

Might the registrants of “two thumbs up” been willing to ignore it if the phrase was used to discuss a pizza shop? Possibly. But, in this case, the phrase was used in a movie review, which is a clear infringement of the phrase’s original and current purpose. If there’s an online version of this newspaper, I would not be at all surprised to find that Siskel and Ebert’s attorneys subscribe to spidering service that actively looks for that phrase.

But college newspapers don’t qualify as “television programs and appearances”. Shouldn’t that mean that the newspaper is free to use it?

I’m no trademark law expert, but I think that means : any television program, and also the movie review field. Though as far as I know Ebert & Roeper only use it on the TV show.

p.s. to crt1271 I should have said, “no offense to your friend’s reviewer’s taste in movies.”

It’s always an issue when applied to any movie review. For reviews of other items, it depends, but probably the trademark lawyers wouldn’t like that, either.

Remember – they are only required to send the letter. If you stop using the phrase, that’s about as far as it will go. Even if you use it occasionally, they will just continue to send the letter. The point is to be able to show that they defended the copyright, just in case a more serious infringement comes up.

However, if they don’t send a letter, then they’re open to the charge that they did not defend their trademark and that could be grounds for losing it. While that’s unlikely, any lawyer who doesn’t follow through on this is going to be in deep trouble if it ever does happen.

BTW, the lawyers probably subscribe to a clipping service that sends them all uses of the phrase.

Your Fired

is Trademarked.

I cant get sacked from job now right?

Uh…that’s “You’re fired”

And, for a serious answer to a silly question, you cannot use the phrase on various items – mugs, backpacks, totes, and as a catchphrase on a TV show, but you can use it in normal speech.

I’ll bet you can use:
**Two Big Toes Up

A thumb up

Three Thumbs Up

Two Pseudopods Up

Two Middle Fingers Up**

…although it probably still wonm’t stop them from taking you to court, if they have a mind to. Megacorporations have no sense of humor, and are fiercely protective of anything approaching something they’ve cultivated an identity for, even if done in a spirit of parody and not technically violating the letter of the law. Coca Cola went after Taylor Wines for using their own name on the labels (even though not as part of the name of the wine), and went after Polar Beverages of Worcester for using a computer-animated Polar Bear in their TV commercials (even though Polar has used the Polar Bear as its symbol for a lot longer than Coke did).

You parsed the sentence wrong. It’s “television programs” and “appearances in the field of movie critiques.” Since the phrase was used by the newspaper in a movie critique, that certainly violates the “appearances in the field of movie critique.”

There was a hair salon in Sudbury Ontario called “En Vogue” They actually received a cease and desist letter from Vogue magazine. Just to show how tenacious IP lawyers are!

Think about it. Sudbury! If there’s a bright centre of the universe Sudbury is probably the farthest from it (i.e. next door to Tatooine :smiley: ). That plus “en vogue” is a commonly used phrase. Finally, it’s a salon, not a magazine. Sure Vogue magazine is all about fashion and style - and one can get a hair style at a salon - so there’s a tenuous connection. But sheesh! The Sudbury salon backed down and changed their name.

You also need to remember that trademark law requires vigorous vigilance against all infractions of the trademark. If the trademark owner doesn’t go after violators then a court may take away the trademark.

If your friend is an editor-in-chief of a newspaper, then it’s absolutely incumbent upon her to know these absolute basics of intellectual property law. Understanding the difference between copyright and trademark is just the beginning. Sounds like she has a lot of work ahead of her.

Trademark, not copyright.

It’s not only because they have no sense of humour. There is a real risk under the trademark law that they can lose their exclusive rights in a mark if they don’t object to it.

Using a picture of Cthulhu with “two tentacles up” would be legitimate, as parody of the trademarked phrase. Probably your other examples would be the same.

Well, sort of. The heirs to the Taylor Wine Co. sold the company, and all its rights, to Coca Cola. If you buy a bottle of Taylor Lake Country, the money eventually gets to Coca Cola.

Walter J. Tylr (and I’m doing that intentionally; he is prohibited from using his own surname in connection with the wine industry) opened up a winery and marketed his own products. He can use “Walter J.” and his company name, “Bully Hill Winery,” but he’s been enjoined from making any use of his surname with reference to his product or his company; Coke owns the rights to it relative to winemaking.

Yeah, I know – but he only used his name in tiny letters at the bottom of the label, identifying himself as the winemaker, not calling it “Taylor wine”, andf they still dinged him for it. Then he redrew the label with a question mark (?) where “taylor” should be and a picture of himself with a single eye in the middle of his forehead (so as not to even use his picture on the label) and they still took him to court, saying he was making a mockery of the ruling. Well, he was, but as far as I can tell he wasn’y violating any restriction on what he could do.

He finally got the name of the road Bully Hill Winery was on to “Greyton Taylor Boulevard”, then printed his address on the labels, so he ended up with the family name on the labels agfter all, and legally. Coke should stuck with the version with the question mark and the cyclops, and quit while they were ahead.

That is how I parsed it, but perhaps I don’t understand what an “appearance” is. I imagined that it refered to a performance in which the phrase-user was physically present before the audience (rather than on television). How can a newspaper article qualify as an “appearance”? If "appearance just means “an appearance of the phrase”, why specify television programs at all?

Your editor was misusing the phrase, too. One person cannot give a movie “two thumbs up”, at least not the way it’s used on Ebert & Roeper’s program. If both of the reviewers recommend a film, it gets “two thumbs up”. If only one of them likes it, he gives it “thumbs up” and the other, “thumbs down”.