Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Plastic Character Speaks Like Seinfeld

Dear Rich: I have created an electronic speaking character for retail sales. I would like to use the phrase "You are so good looking" from Seinfeld. If the phrase is used in the same manner and same delivery as in Seinfeld, but in a completely different non-human voice coming from a plastic character that does not look human (character does not represent anything on Seinfeld) can I use the phrase legally? We should mention that there was a case a while ago in which two actors from Cheers sued a chain of bars that had installed audio-animatronic figures resembling their characters and that spoke their "trademark" lines. (The underlying legal principles are explained here.) And of course, let's not forget that horrific turn of events when somebody tried to cash in by turning Vanna White into a robot.
We're okay. You're Okay. But we're inclined to think that your situation is different and you'll be okay. That's because you're not reproducing the characters appearance and you're using a non-human voice (although we're not sure what you mean by "in the same manner and same delivery"). And there are no copyright issues because as you know from reading the Dear Rich column, individual phrases, (including individual Seinfeld phrases) cannot be protected unless trademark or related rights have been asserted. Anyway the general rule we usually harp on here at Dear Rich Headquarters is that the more it seems like you're conjuring up a protected character or celebrity, the higher the hassle factor. (Of course, keep in mind there are many ways to get in trouble using that Seinfeld line ...it already got one guy canned.)