Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Toyota Cruises into Copyright Infringement

                  On October 20th, 2014, Eric Dahl filed a complaint against Toyota Motor Sales alleging copyright infringement.  Dahl claims that Toyota’s new commercial , featuring a young girl who wins a storage locker containing one of B.B. King’s famous “Lucille” guitars, is exactly like Dahl’s real-life experience.  While most commercials and television have some basis in real-life, Dahl’s experience is written in his book, B.B. King's Lucille and the Loves Before Her. He spends several chapters describing the moment he found B.B. King’s stolen guitar in a Las Vegas pawn shop. While the commercial depicts a young woman who finds the guitar in a storage locker, both Dahl and the young girl in the commercial return the guitar to B.B. King, who rewards them with a Lucille of their own.

This issue invites the question: how similar is too similar?  According to 17 U.S.C.A. § 106(2)[1], the owner of the copyright has the exclusive right to “prepare derivative works” based on the copyrighted material.  In this case, Toyota allegedly consulted with Gibson guitar employees to ensure an accurate depiction of the story from the book with the intention to derive their commercial from Dahl’s story (assuming Dahl’s allegations are true, of course).  

However, there are billions of people with billions of stories; the chance that someone may have had a very similar personal experience to another person is at least possible, if not probable.  If one person writes a book about some occurrence in his or her life and another person writes and performs a similar play, who gets to tell the story?  Telling someone to stifle their own life experiences because someone beat them to a copyright seems a little too Big Brother, however, we as a society also have an interest in preventing corporations like Toyota from “selling” someone else’s moments for profit.

Dahl seeks damages and profits attributed to the advertisement.  He also intends to seek an injunction, preventing the commercial from airing any longer.  Arguably, there will be almost no way to determine what profits came directly from this commercial as opposed to any number of other commercials aired by Toyota or by individual car dealerships. Nonetheless, Dahl seems to have a strong case for recovering damages and obtaining a permanent injunction based on the striking similarities between the commercial and his story.[2] Only time, and Nevada’s district court, will tell what will become of the claim, but it certainly seems that the odds are in Dahl’s favor.

-Amanda Marston (Staff Editor, Denver SELJ)

[1] 17 U.S.C.A § 106(2).
[2] Assuming that Dahl has made no licensing agreements with Toyota, which he claims he has not.

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