I Know I Am, But What Am I? Two Music Stars in a Trademark Dispute

If anyone can accurately be called ubiquitous, it’s musician, producer, and fashionista Pharrell Williams. Whether it’s cavorting with Robin Thicke and dancers in “Blurred Lines” or on Daft Punk’s song of the summer of 2013, “Get Lucky,” the man is everywhere. Now he’s in federal court, too. He’s adverse to will.i.am, who also isn’t unskilled in the art of ubiquity in the worlds of music, fashion, and technology — both on his own and as a member of The Black Eyed Peas.

Pharrell Williams has been using the phrase “I AM OTHER” on a video-driven website established by Williams at www.iamother.com. His company is seeking to register that phrase as a trademark at the US Patent and Trademark Office. Will.i.am and his attorneys protested.

After letters from the respective attorneys did not resolve the dispute, Williams’ company I Am Other Entertainment sued will.i.am and his company, I.Am.Symbolic on July 1, 2013 for a “declaratory judgment” to the effect that it is not infringing the trademark rights of will.i.am.

Will.i.am’s company owns at least two federal trademark registrations, one for WILL.I.AM for “entertainment services, namely, live musical performances by a male artist; and fashion designer.” The other is I AM for “clothing, namely, hats, caps, socks, shirts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, shorts, pants, sweatpants, jeans, footwear, namely, shoes, boots.” His company also has many pending applications for IAM in a wide variety of goods and services such as pet accessories, jewelry, education services.

Pharrell Williams argues that the IAM formative is weak and that third parties use variations of I AM, too. Therefore, his lawyers argue, the will.i.am marks should not bar his company’s trademark registrations and use of his own trademark program.

In correspondence responding to the claim of trademark infringement, Pharrell Williams’s representatives suggested in a response that will.i.am’s use of IAM was based on Dr. Seuss’s famous lines from Green Eggs and Ham, “Sam I am, I am Sam, I am Sam, Sam I am”. The response went on to say that Pharrell Williams’ use of I AM OTHER means “I am something else” and in no way suggests or trades off the trademarks of will.i.am.

The case also somehow suggests the comeback phrase popularized by Pee Wee Herman, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Will.i.am’s attorneys have yet to file their formal answer in court, so we haven’t yet entirely heard their side of the story. In the exhibits to the complaint, will.i.am’s lawyers points out the fame of will.i.am and the fact that the two stars know each other. Despite the renown, style, and fame of these two highly talented litigants, the case is at its heart a classical trademark case. In other words, the question before the court is whether or not in the relevant markets is the use of these dueling trademarks likely to cause confusion to the public.

We may not yet know who is right and who is wrong about I AM. But, as Dr. Seuss once said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

In February 2015, our colleague and friend, partner Mark Fischer, passed away. We have made his blog posts available in honor of both his nuanced and wide-ranging knowledge of intellectual property, new media and entertainment law and of his entertaining style. Please read our tribute to Mark in the firm’s Alumni Spotlight publication and his obituary in the Boston Globe.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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