WKRP is back on the air in Cincinnati, sort of…

Via this site, which reports:

WKRP is back on the air in Cincinnati — but this time it’s for real.

A low-power TV station has changed its call letters to WKRP, the same as the fictional radio station in the 1970s hit series “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

The station changed its call letters to promote its new digital TV signal. It formerly went by WBQC-TV.

General Manager Elliott Block says the new call letters give the station recognition because so many people remember the television sit-com.

I think it’s likely people will be confused. But I’m not sure there is a Lanham Act problem. What sayeth the trademark law geeks?

4 thoughts on “WKRP is back on the air in Cincinnati, sort of…

  1. At risk of identifying myself as a trademark law geek, I think these are really interesting cases. I think it’s very likely listeners will understand the reference and will make some connection to the show. Are they confused? I guess it really depends on what we mean by that. Is it likely that some listeners will wonder whether there’s some kind of connection between the radio station and the old TV show. But what kind of connection could that possibly be? Are they going to think that the people who produced that show are now running a radio station? Very unlikely. But they might think the station made some sort of deal with the show’s producers.

    This sort of belief, it seems to me, would exist only in a world where some of the listeners believe the radio station has to have permission to use the WKRP letters. Because it’s hard to imagine that such a use tells the listeners anything about the quality of the radio station. So this might be a little like the merchandising context – where broadening trademark rights actually change consumers expectations and feed back into the law to generate even broader rights.

  2. I suppose I qualify as a TM law geek — though I usually think of my geekiness and my interest in TM as being independent, except where they sometimes coincide (e.g. search engines).

    Anyway, it seems they’ve got 2 federal registrations: 3290908 & 3290909, which tells me that the matter of trademarks crossed their minds. They’re obviously aware of the association with the old show, so I would imagine they received advice about using the mark WKRP from counsel. Possibly (though who knows) they could have talked with Fox, which I think absorbed the rights to the show from MTM? (Not really sure about that either.)

    Putting aside all that ignorance and recasting this as a hypothetical situation — since you’re a TM geek too, I’m curious about what you might think about this type of use, Ann. I take it that when you say you find it likely that people will be confused, you’re saying that it is likely that people will be confused about whether the TV station is somehow associated with or endorsed by the owners of the IP rights in the TV show? But I take it that when you say that you’re not sure whether there is a Lanham Act problem, you’re saying you’re not sure whether the Lanham Act should extend to that particular kind of confusion?

  3. I posted without seeing Mark’s comment — just to draw the connections:

    So yes, the issue that a situation like this might raise if it were litigated is essentially what I present to my classes as a “confusion over confusion” issue. The problem being that no matter how distant certain forms of confusion might be from the traditional logic of trademark law, it is not hard to find some court that found trademark infringement based on that sort of confusion.

  4. I’ll believe this when I see turkeys dropping from the sky.

    Seriously: Mark, Greg, Ann — this isn’t “IP Anon.” [“Hi, I’m Mike. I’m a trademark geek.” “Hi, Mike.”] Confusion about confusion (and confusion about confusion about confusion, which is undoubtedly coming to an appellate court soon, if it hasn’t already) is a perfectly respectable topic in company that is both polite and impolite.

    But I wonder whether the trademark claim here is secondary to the copyright question.

    WKRP was, after all, a fictional place, or a plot element, in a copyrighted work of fiction. The current radio station is — what? — reproducing? publicly performing? publicly displaying? distributing a derivative work? of that plot element.

    In other words, my sense is that the cultural and legal reference here is not to the call letters themselves, but to the proposition that WKRP is a radio station — a setting — in Cincinnati. Technically, to get out of trademark-land, I would question whether “WKRP” is a valid mark for entertainment services beyond the “television broadcast services” identified in the registrations. As a title, “WKRP in Cincinnati” likely is unprotected by copyright law, and “WKRP” would be an unprotected word or short phrase.

    In taking a fictional place and making it sort of real, this situation reminds me a bit of Quidditch leagues: real people playing a fictional game. Is Quidditch a real game? It is in the sense that live human beings “play” it, or an earthbound version of it. Is Quidditch an imagined plot element of a copyrighted work? That, too. So when students “play” or “publicly perform” Quidditch, do they have to license the “work” from J.K. Rowling? So far I can tell, they are not paying royalties, and they haven’t been asked to.

Comments are closed.