Today, we have a guest post from Gray Reed & McGraw attorney Cleve Clinton (the one on the far left).  He is one of the writers of the enlightening and entertaining blog over at Tilting the Scales where they share common sense, practical insights and a little humor, all to help clarify interesting and timely business legal issues that pop up.

Their most recent post fits in perfectly for what we cover here — intellectual property rights of out-of-sync dancing costumed sharks and 3D printing.  You can check out the original post and more of Titling the Scales here.

Left Shark and Lawsuits – Who Gets Bitten in the End?

By Cleve Clinton on February 10th, 2015 
Halftime was just the Beginning: A backup dancer in Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show goes viral upstaging the singer, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson for MVP. Thanks to social media, “Left Shark” became a “thing” overnight and an enterprising entrepreneur (Frederick Sosa) sells internet 3D printed figurines to cash in on the immediate success of the carefree creature.

The Real Shark? Katy Perry’s lawyers issued a cease and desist letter claiming copyright violations and threatening a lawsuit. No surprise there.

The Victim?  Protecting some 10 sales of a $24.99 “Left Shark Desk Figurine” versus litigation threatened by a 1,000+ attorney law firm?  No contest – Frederick Sosa of Orlando. Even assuming he did have the resources to fight, it’s not worth the time or the argument. At $24.99 a pop, the economics are obvious. The good news is that Sosa got a lot of airtime for his 3-D online printing business. In the social media world he and Left Shark upstaged everyone on the big stage.

Legal Issues? Plenty to go around on Copyright Law and 3D Printing.

Copyright. Generally speaking: Can a non-generic animal costume be copyrighted? Probably. But, who owns the right to the copyright? If used before, it may be in the public domain. If not, it depends. Who designed the shark costume? What do the contracts say among any number of possible claimants – a third party designer, Perry’s team, the NFL, NBC or someone else? Finally, if it is protectable, was it properly perfected? For the real answer to any specific copyright questions, our very own Gray Reed copyright, trademark and patent experts David Lisch and David Henry can provide the right answers to the hard questions.

Last Bite? After removing the figurine for sale from Shapeways.com, Sosa put his Left Shark figurine design on MakerBot’s Thingiverse site as a free download for anyone with a 3D printer. A modified version is still available as “Blue Drunk Shark.”

3D Printing. The more novel question? Can a 3-D printing-on-demand company be liable for the infringements of its users? The 3D printing industry blog notes that federal law provides a safe harbor for websites and services that provide a platform for users to publish their own works. Manufacturing-on-demand services could be considered analogous to sites such as YouTube and Tumblr; the only real difference is that their products are physical, not virtual. Yet a federal judge ruled last year that CafePress, which makes T-shirts and coffee mugs on demand, didn’t qualify for that safe harbor, allowing a photographer’s infringement claims against the company to proceed. A year ago, Tilting wrote about 3D printing of guns, the fact that the innovative emerging ideas of 3D printing is a disruptive technology and its likely impact on copyright issues. No doubt, more to come.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor. Evaluate the risk. Be realistic. Identify the opportunity and the near term goal. In this case, better to use sound judgment at the beginning and maximize the social media limelight, then be prepared graciously bow out.

Previous Tilting Articles: There’s a Printer for That!