We live in the age of the Internet. Over the last few decades, Internet Culture has grown by leaps and bounds to become one of the dominant players in intellectual property. Today we have a whole slate of web-onlies – Web Only Programs, Web Only Games, and Web Only Celebrities. And if one things has been proved over and over again, it’s that the Internet audience out there loves animals of all kinds, especially when they are anthropomorphised and made into characters. Everything from Grumpy Cats to skateboarding dogs to adorable sloths have carved out a bit of Internet fame for themselves, and often their owners have converted their Internet fame into very real media empires – see, for example, Grumpy Cat (www.grumpycats.com) a simple pet cat with an adorably grumpy-seeming face who has become incredibly popular and launched a web site, book deal, and other creative endeavours.
Protecting the Pet
But where does Grumpy Cat and his ilk fall in the thorny field of Intellectual Property? He’s not a person, as legally defined, and thus has no right of publicity. He’s not an intellectual creation like an animated cat would be. So how can someone whose cute and entertaining pet gains national or international notoriety protect their rights and investment? The fact is, under U.S. law and most international IP treaties, the tools to do so already exist and are not in any way obscure.
First and foremost, use the copyright. If your pet appears in videos or other media, register your copyright claim. With copyright in place you will be able to fend off others who try to use your filmed or photographic materials for their own purposes, thus fending off dilution of your brand.
Second, trademark the name. This must be something distinct, so if your dog’s name is Fido you will have to come up with an alternative name that is unique. Grumpy Cat is a perfect example: Whatever the cat’s “real” name is, he is now known as Grumpy Cat and that is an easily trademarked mark. If your pet is famous for its physical appearance (as Grumpy Cat is) you may also, under U.S. law, be able to trademark that distinctive appearance if you can describe it effectively.
Finally, claim your virtual property. This includes registering domain names for your pet in several varieties, creating social media accounts for them, and claiming any other named-resources you can think of. This is not so much a legal manoeuvre as simply playing defence against those who would pretend to be your famous pet, but having established these properties in the early goings will serve you well if you are forced to prove ownership later.
All that’s left is to police and enforce your copyrights and trademarks, in order to both protect your earnings and influence and establish your ownership for future legal actions. No special legislation is needed to protect famous pets – and that’s a good thing, because it’s very unlikely any is going to be passed in the U.S. any time soon!