EDITORIAL: Trademark litigation run amok

Frivolous lawsuits underscore a need to revisit copyright law

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The lot of an imprisoned dictator isn’t a happy one. Ever since the United States deposed Manuel Noriega as the maximum leader of Panama a quarter of a century ago, he, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.” So the other day, Noriega filed a lawsuit from his cell in Panama’s El Renacer prison.

The onetime strongman was shocked when he fired up the “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” video game, and there was none other than himself, portrayed as a bad guy code named “False Profit.”

Profit is what Noriega is after, of course. When “Black Ops 2” hit the streets in November 2012, it took just two weeks for publisher Activision to reach $1 billion in sales. The game has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.

The unstrung strongman says his virtual presence in the game is what heightened realism, and therefore sales. What teenage boy doesn’t dream of buying a game featuring the face of Manuel Noriega? He demands a cut of the profits.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court is likely to do with the suit what it usually does with frivolous complaints from prisoners with too much time on their hands. Since he’s not a citizen of the United States, Noriega doesn’t appear to have any standing to sue, but his case highlights a growing phenomenon.

Many famous — and infamous — figures have found that they can make a quick buck by filing lawsuits against publishers with deep pockets. Earlier this month, Lindsay Lohan, the former child actress, sued Rockstar Games over the latest edition of “Grand Theft Auto,” which features a blonde bubblehead named Lacey Jonas. The fictional character says vapid things like: “I’m really famous. I didn’t do anything.”

Miss Lohan sees herself in that statement (or says she does) and demands a share of the profits from the blockbuster game. It has sold 32 million copies so far.

It’s not only dictators and bubblehead starlets who are filing such lawsuits; companies are in on the action. Textron, the defense contractor that sells the Viper and Venom helicopters and the V-22 Osprey to the U.S. military, sued video game maker Electronic Arts for including this hardware in its “Battlefield 3” video game.

It’s not enough that taxpayers pay $31 million for each Viper attack helicopter, $45 million for a Venom transport helicopter and $68 million for a single Osprey. The company thinks the public must pay more if it wants to play a game simulating the latest U.S. military hardware.

This could give other companies ideas. Why shouldn’t a Hollywood studio pay Mitsubishi something when a Japanese Zero, the nemesis of American fliers in World War II, streaks across the screen in a war film, or Chrysler for every Jeep portrayed on screen. We would have no more “Sands of Iwo Jima” or “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s not so far-fetched. Electronic Arts was so afraid it would lose Textron’s lawsuit that it settled for an undisclosed amount.

Copyright has strayed from its constitutional purpose to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Allowing imprisoned dictators and divas just out of rehab to use copyright law to make a buck isn’t quite the “progress” the Founders had in mind.

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