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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Despite IP exclusion, insurer bound to defend in right-of-publicity case over running shoes, Mass. high court holds

Upon an underlying case involving the right of publicity coupled with consumer protection and equity claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today held insurers duty-bound to defend an insured running-shoe maker, despite the exclusion of intellectual property claims from coverage.

Abebe Bikila in Rome, 1960
Massachusetts-based Vibram USA, through its affiliate Vibram FiveFingers, named a line of "minimalist" running shoes after Ethiopian Olympic athlete Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot when he set a marathon world record in Rome in 1960.  (See clips from 1960 and Bikila's 1964 marathon win in Tokyo on the Olympic Channel).  Seriously injured in a car accident in 1969, Bikila died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.  Since then, the family has made commercial use of the Bikila name in enterprises including a Spanish retail sporting goods chain, a Bikila biography, a Japanese commercial, and a biographical feature film.  The family objected to Vibram's association of its shoe with Bikila without permission.

The complaint comprised four counts: (1) right of publicity under the Washington Personality Rights Act, (2) violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act, (3) unfair competition under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and (4) unjust enrichment.  Vibram's general insurance and liability policies with two providers, Salem-based Holyoke Mutual and Maryland Casualty, covered "personal and advertising injury liability," without defining "advertising injury"; however, the coverage excluded intellectual property liability.  The insurers sought, and the superior court granted, declaratory relief from coverage.  The SJC reversed.

To trigger an insurer's duty to defend, the insured need show only "a possibility that the liability claim falls within the insurance coverage."  The duty to defend is broader than the duty to indemnify.  The Bikila complaint alleged that Vibram used Bikila as "an advertising idea."  Bikila family members alleged that they had "intentionally and specifically connected the name to running-related ventures, and the name itself conveys a 'barefoot dedication to succeed under any circumstances,' a desirable quality for any of these ventures."  The insurers were mistaken in arguing that the claim was limited to the right of publicity, or was synonymous with trademark infringement, both IP theories excluded from coverage.  Rather, the essence of the Bikila claim was that Vibram sought to profit from Bikila-associated ideas.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Running Shoes (by Fuzzy Gerdes, CC BY 2.0)
From the court's opinion, it is not clear to me which or what combination of claims ensures that a complaint such as this one rises beyond the coverage exclusion.  Count 1 right of publicity by itself would not have been covered by the policy, and it is informative to see that the privacy tort now resides firmly in the IP household.  I suspect that count 3 under the Lanham Act also constitutes an excluded IP claim.  So perhaps statutory consumer protection and equitable quasi-contract each could do the trick.  Yet those theories, in any given case, could overlap wholly with IP claims.  The court's opinion suggests that there is something special about the misappropriation of an "advertising idea" that sets this case apart qualitatively from IP claims.  I'm not sure I see it.

Apparently the "advertising injury" language of the insurance coverage here is not without precedent, and the court gave an informative catalog of the "wide variety of concepts, methods, and activities related to calling the public's attention to a business, product, or service [that have] constitute[d] advertising ideas":
  • logo and brand name, Street Surfing, LLC v. Great Am. E&S Ins. Co., 776 F.3d 603, 611-612 (9th Cir. 2014);
  • patented telephone service enabling sale and promotion of products, Dish Network Corp. v. Arch Specialty Ins. Co., 659 F.3d 1010, 1022 (10th Cir. 2011);
  • advertising strategy of "trad[ing] upon a reputation, history, and sales advantage" associated with Native American made products, Native Am. Arts, Inc. v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 729, 733 (7th Cir. 2006);
  • concept of "Psycho Chihuahua" obsessed with Taco Bell food to advertise business, Taco Bell Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 388 F.3d 1069, 1072 (7th Cir. 2004);
  • word "NISSAN" to promote vehicles to public, constituting "quintessential example of trademark functioning to advertise a company's products," State Auto Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. The Travelers Indem. Co. of Am., 343 F.3d 249, 258 (4th Cir. 2003);
  • use of internet domain, CAT Internet Servs., Inc. v. Providence Wash. Ins. Co., 333 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 2003);
  • artwork and product model numbers designed to promote products (claim for trade dress infringement), Hyman v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 304 F.3d 1179, 1189 (11th Cir. 2002);
  • word "fullblood," connoting desirable quality, to advertise Simmental cattle breed, American Simmental Ass'n v. Coregis Ins. Co., 282 F.3d 582, 587 (8th Cir. 2002);
  • agent misrepresenting himself as working for another company for purposes of inducing customers to make purchases, Gustafson v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 901 F. Supp. 2d 1289, 1301 (D. Colo. 2012); and
  • patented technology used to market music for online sales, Amazon.com Int’l, Inc. v. American Dynasty Surplus Lines Ins. Co., 120 Wash. App. 610, 616-617, 619 (2004).
 "Advertising injury" is not "injury caused by other activities that are coincidentally advertised" (quoting Couch treatise).  "Otherwise stated, '[i]f the insured took an idea for soliciting business or an idea about advertising, then the claim is covered ... [b]ut if the allegation is that the insured wrongfully took a ... product and tried to sell that product, then coverage is not triggered'" (quoting Washington precedent and offering authorities in accord from other states).  Thus coverage is excluded in cases such as:

  • use related to manufacture and not marketing, Winklevoss Consultants, Inc. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 991 F. Supp. 1024, 1034 (N.D. Ill. 1998);
  • conspiracy to fix egg prices, Rose Acre Farms, Inc. v. Columbia Cas. Co., 662 F.3d 765, 768-769 (7th Cir. 2011);
  • disparagement of competitor's pineapples to undermine their advertising, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc. v. Transp. Ins. Co., 500 F.3d 640, 643, 646 (7th Cir. 2007);
  • advertising another's patented method for cutting concrete, Green Mach. Corp., v. Zurich-American Ins. Group, 313 F.3d 837, 839 (3d Cir. 2002);
  • design of product, Ekco Group, Inc. v. Travelers Indemnity Co. of Ill., 273 F.3d 409, 413 (1st Cir. 2001);
  • misappropriation of product design, Frog, Switch & Mfg. Co. v. Travelers Ins. Co.,
    193 F.3d 742, 749-750 (3d Cir. 1999);
  • taking of customer list and solicitation of customers from it, Hameid v. National Fire Ins. of Hartford, 31 Cal. 4th 16, 19-20 (2003);
  • manufacture and sale of patented product, Auto Sox USA Inc. v. Zurich N. Am., 121 Wash. App. 422, 427 (2004).

So memorize those, and let me know when you're ready for the exam.

The case is Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co. in Salem v. Vibram USA, Inc., No. SJC-12401 (Mass. Sept. 12, 2018).  Suffolk Law has the oral argument video of Feb. 6.  The case was heard by the full court upon granting direct appeal, and the unanimous opinion was authored by Associate Justice David A. Lowy, a Boston University law grad and former ADA and Goodwin Proctor litigator.

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