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Cops and Robbers

Attention copyists:  You may find a warm welcome in the U.K. -- or in Kent, at least, where the good cops are also bad cops.  At least allegedly. 

Oh Baby London onesie - £21IP Kat reports that designer Hannah McHalick of Oh Baby London is suing the Kent Police over their use of the slogan "I've Been Inside for 9 Months" on baby clothes.  The police have responded that their product line is different because they use the word "I've" in addition to Ms. McHalick's claimed phrase.

While the Metro news article on the case didn't identify Oh Baby London's IP argument with any specificity, Jeremy Phillips at IP Kat doubts that the phrase in question would qualify as an original literary work under U.K. copyright law.  He also questions its use as a trademark.

But what if the case were considered under U.S. law?  While it's axiomatic that words and commonplace short phrases cannot be copyrighted, courts have occasionally found infringement in cases alleging reproduction of as little as a sentence fragment.  For example, there's Andreas v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 336 F.3d 789 (8th Cir. 2003),  in which the voiceover of an Audi commercial, "I think I just had a wake-up call and it was disguised as a car and it was screaming at me not to get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss my life," was found to infringe the work of an artist who accompanied his drawing with the words, "Most people don't know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don't get too comfortable & fall asleep & miss your life."  So the Oh Baby London claim wouldn't necessarily be dismissed immediately, even if the majority of cases involving short phrases find that they are not in fact sufficiently creative to be subject to copyright protection.

Kent Police onesie £12And what about trademark, the natural IP home for short phrases?  I have to agree with Jeremy that there's some question as to whether Oh Baby London's "Been Inside for 9 Months" actually indicates to consumers the origin of the clothing, and thus qualifies for trademark protection.  Not every cute, marketable phrase is a trademark, in the U.S. or the U.K.  And yes, the phrase is descriptive -- or misdescriptive -- but of the baby, not the clothing.  Of course, all this might still leave Ms. McHalick with an unfair competition claim in tort law. 

And one other thing:  If Ms. McHalick is indeed successful in claiming protection for her clever turn of phrase, U.S. courts would be no more mollified than their U.K. counterparts at the Kent Police's addition of an "I've."

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, IP Kat is quite right that the cops in Kent need a bit of time on the inside...of an up-to-date legal hornbook.