Can’t Stop “Village People” Trademarks

Can't Stop the Village People TrademarksSeveral months ago, I blogged about an order allowing a trademark dispute concerning “Village People” marks to be appealed to the Federal Circuit. Here’s how the appeal turned out.

Karen I. Willis v. Can’t Stop Productions, Inc., No. 2012-1109 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 13, 2012) (Judges Prost, Moore, and O’Malley) (per curiam) (nonprecedential)

Karen Willis is the wife and agent of Victor Willis, formerly of the Village People. Victor left the group in 1982, but, 25 years later, he apparently decided to try to make some more money off of his Village People character. The trouble is that he’d signed away all rights to the “Village People” name in a 1977 employment agreement with Can’t Stop Productions. After an unsuccessful attempt to license the name from Can’t Stop, the Willises tried another approach—petitioning to cancel Can’t Stop’s “Village People” trademark registrations.

Can’t Stop owns three service mark registrations for “Village People”—two word marks (one for entertainment services and one for audio recordings) and one design mark, also for entertainment services (specifically live performances):

Willis made a number of creative “fraud-esque” arguments to explain why Can’t Stop wasn’t entitled to the marks. (I say “fraud-esque” because she didn’t allege fraud outright, but claimed that Can’t Stop misrepresented the source and nature of the services. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) interpreted these as fraud, and the Federal Circuit agreed.) She argued that her husband was the true source of the services, and that the Village People were a “concept group” rather than a musical group. She also alleged that Can’t Stop had abandoned the marks, since the current Village People just lip-sync but don’t actually sing, and that the marks are generic “because they merely identify groups of people living in a community or small town.”

Creative? Yes. Successful? No. The Federal Circuit affirmed the TTAB’s summary judgment ruling that the marks were neither generic nor abandoned. The main problem? Willis didn’t offer any evidence to back up her claims. While “village people” can identify a group of people living in a village, Willis didn’t have any evidence to show that its generic for a construction worker, a cop, a biker, a sailor, an Indian, and a cowboy singing and dancing. (And if there is a village with people like that, I want to go to there—but only for a brief time.)

And she didn’t have anything to rebut Can’t Stop’s showing that it had used the marks multiple times in the ‘90s and 2000s. As for Willis’s argument that the group only lip-syncs, the court commented: “Although it may reflect on the quality of the entertainment Appellee offers, Mrs. Willis’s argument that the Village People do not actually sing or play their own instruments fails to disqualify them as a ‘musical and vocal group.’”

As for the “fraud-esque” assertions, the TTAB and the Federal Circuit both concluded that they didn’t even amount to legal claims and dismissed them.

Looks like Willis won’t be performing a one-man version of “Y.M.C.A” any time soon.

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