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Intellectual property is a legal concept that applies to your ideas or your ‘creations of the mind’. You can protect these ideas with legal rights, meaning you can stop others from using or copying your ideas. Therefore, movie characters will likely qualify as intellectual property which someone will own. Accordingly, someone came up with the idea for that character, and they will likely own the inherent or registered intellectual property rights that come with that character. This fact is important for your business if you wish to make merchandise for a movie and its characters. Without the consent of the intellectual property owner, you can generate costly problems for your business if you do this. Therefore, this article will go through four reasons not to name your New Zealand products after movie characters.

Inviting Infringement Claims

Different kinds of intellectual property rights include:

  • trade marks;
  • designs;
  • patents; and
  • copyright.

For example, for popular or main characters, writers may register trade marks in that character’s name or image. Copyright may also apply to that character.

Usually, when someone owns the intellectual property rights of an idea, such as a movie character, they can stop other people from:

  • using that character in their own content;
  • profiting from that character; or
  • copying that character.

Owners can license out their intellectual property to third parties. Likewise, those parties can use that intellectual property according to the licence terms. Moreover, they may have to pay for that licence.

For instance, Lucasfilm Entertainment owns the trade mark for Luke Skywalker, a main character from the film, Star Wars. Since your business does not own that trade mark, if you wanted to create products under your brand using Luke Skywalker’s name, you would need permission from Lucasfilm Entertainment to do so.

Therefore, if you use someone else’s intellectual property without an appropriate licence or another form of permission, this can qualify as infringement. As a result, the other party can lodge an infringement claim against you, which may result in costly litigation. Additionally, you may have to compensate them for losses your infringement has caused. 

If you do not own the intellectual property rights for a movie character and use them for your branded products, you can invite legal action against you. Such action would be costly for your business and could negatively impact your reputation.

Customer Confusion

On top of the potential infringement issues, naming your products after movie characters can lead to customer confusion. They may think that you represent the studios or companies behind those characters in an official capacity, which can influence their purchasing decisions. If they later find out that your products are not ‘official’ in this way, this may generate frustration and ill will.

For example, if your branded products carry the name of a movie character from a major franchise, customers may expect a degree of authenticity depending on how you present your goods. 

Breaching the Fair Trading Act

The Fair Trading Act is a New Zealand law that promotes fairness when businesses sell their goods and services. It prohibits:

  • misleading conduct;
  • false or deceiving statements representations;
  • unsubstantiated claims; and 
  • unfair contract terms.

Likewise, you may mislead your customers if you sell your products using a movie character’s name. They may think the person or studio that created that character endorses your goods, which may induce them to buy your products. This fact could then qualify as misleading conduct on your end. Movie studios do not want others tarnishing their brand, so they will rely on various legal avenues to make you stop. Therefore, naming your products after movie characters can lead to legal consequences of different kinds that can cost your business considerably.

Registration Problems

For your own brand, it is a good idea to register the names of important business products as a trade mark to protect your intellectual property. You can do so with the Intellectual Property Office (IPONZ). However, you can only register a valid trade mark if: 

  • it is unique and distinctive;
  • an identical or similar one does not already exist in your market or industry; or
  • it is not similar to an existing trade mark that is so well-known it would cause confusion.

Depending on the popularity and reputation of the movie character and how similar your trade mark is, it is unlikely that you would be able to register your trade mark named after that character. 

Key Takeaways

If you are developing products for your brand, you may be tempted to capitalise on the success of popular movie characters from large franchises and name your products after those characters. However, you do not own the intellectual property rights to these characters. Consequently, those who do can come after your business. You can then encounter various legal problems and costly impacts on your business. 

For more information or help with avoiding intellectual property issues when naming products, contact LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is a broad area but usually refers to the legal rights that protect your ideas or ‘creations of the mind’. These rights can include trade marks and copyright.

Can I use movie characters’ names for my products?

If you do not own the intellectual property rights to those movie characters, or have permission to use them, you should not use them for your products. Otherwise, you invite the risk of legal action from the people who own those intellectual property rights and do not want you to affect their particular brand.

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