Monday, July 27, 2009

'That Guy' and Copyright: Short Phrase Protection

Dear Rich: I have a blog where I post original satirical and observational pieces using a common phrase ("that guy" as in "you might be 'that guy' if..."). I was recently contacted by a radio personality halfway across the country who stated my material infringed upon his copyrighted recordings (two minute radio bits on "that guy"). After reviewing a sample recording he provided, the only discernible similarity I could find was the use of the common phrase ('that guy'). His format, delivery, tone, etc. are very different from the content and writing style of my blog. It was my impression common phrases are not capable of being copyrighted. Additionally, I believe even if he was able to copyright some version of the common phrase, my blog would fall under fair use. The short answer is that whether you use "that guy," "this guy," "that girl," or even "that's cat," copyright protection is not available for short phrases or single words. (Check out our article on the subject.) If that's all that your blog and the radio guy's shows have in common, there's no copyright infringement. (Fair use is not likely to be an issue because it doesn't appear as if you are borrowing any of the radio guy's material.) 
Trademarks and Other Claims
That isn't to say you can't run into a problem under trademark law or the right of publicity. There are many registered trademarks for "that guy" for jewelry, bumper stickers, coasters, decals, headbands, men's clothing and for a service identifying character actors (y'know, that guy). The Department of Defense even owns one for educational videos about alcohol consumption (oh, that guy!). However the unofficial search by the Dear Rich Staff couldn't find any registrations that would interfere with your rights to publish a blog. That isn't to say that someone with enough money and too much time on their hands might bring a lawsuit based on unfair competition or some other theory but the chances for success seem slim based on the facts in your letter. What's the video got to do with your question? This guy is one of our favorite "that guys."