On January 30, 2000, Washington Apple Pi reprinted a column from our magazine called Click City I: The Good, The Weird, And the Vague But True. The column appeared in 1999, and featured interesting links to be found on the Internet, which at that time was "new" and "bold and "different." but we were lazy and didn't get around to publishing it for several months. It sat unchanged for several years but was modified in January 2003 to fix some broken links. Then it suffered years of neglect. Note: the column title was Click City, with a subordinate clause, The Good, The Weird, And the Vague But True.
Then we received the following E-mail:
Subject: I own Vague But True and would like you to stop using it
Date: December 6, 2007 0:02:58 EST
To WHom It May Concern;
I own the copyright on Vague But True. You have it on your website. Could you please remove it?
This was an interesting claim, capitalization aside. Since Washington Apple Pi has a whole boatload of attorneys as members, it wasn't hard to check the accuracy of Mr. Bedore's claim. According to the Library of Congress, the arbiter of copyright in the United States,
"Names, titles, and short phrases or expressions
are not subject to copyright protection. Even if a name, title, or short
phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words,
it cannot be protected by copyright. The Copyright Office cannot register
claims to exclusive rights in brief combinations of words such as:
* Names of products or services
* Names of businesses, organizations, or groups (including the name of a group of performers)
* Names of pseudonyms of individuals (including pen name or stage name)
* Titles of works
* Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions
* Mere listings of ingredients, as in recipes, labels, or formulas. When a recipe or formula is accompanied by explanation or directions, the text directions may be copyrightable, but the recipe or formula itself remains uncopyrightable."
Since "vague but true" consists of three words, fourteen characters (including spaces), it seems to be almost archtypically uncopyrightable.
The Copyright Office mentions this several places on their Web site, including their "Copyright Basics" page,
"Several categories of material are generally
not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include among others:
* Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
* Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
* Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
* Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)"
Again, the phrase "vague but true" seems clearly not eligible for copyright. Mr. Bedore felt otherwise:
Subject: Re: I own Vague But True and would like you to stop using it
Date: December 6, 2007 10:18:09 EST
You couldn't be more uninformed or aggressively inaccurate.
Yes you certainly can copyright a title or a phrase. I have. Check the government's records on Vague But True. You can't copyright a common usage phrase. But because the government did give me the copyright on Vague But True, because they determined it is not a common usage phrase, and because I use it in commerce you are in violation of copyright law. Take the phrase off your site. I will be checking back. If you don't remove that phrase from your site I will move to have your site shut down. I have done it before, I can do it to you.
Now, you "go away" and take care of that task.
Mr. Bedore did publish a book (out of print) titled "Vague But True" in 1997. Perhaps Mr. Bedore felt the Library of Congress was copyrighting the title, rather than the contents?
This apparent confusion was further muddled by the following:
Subject: Re: I own Vague But True and would like you to stop using it
Date: December 6, 2007 12:18:47 EST
Just to be certain you understand the situation, legally-- I own (since 1994) the service mark (trademark) Vague But True. All the written and spoken material that appears under that banner is protected by copyright law.
Here Mr. Bedore mixes up a service mark (a phrase used to promote a business or service) with copyright. Copyright is handled by the Library of Congress, an agency of Congress. Service Marks are handled by the Department of Commerce, which is not only a different agency but an entirely different branch of government, with entirely different interest, protections, and attorneys. Since Washington Apple Pi is a computer user group, and Mr. Bedore is allegedly a comedian, there seems precious little chance that our worlds would collide; we've never claimed a service mark or trademark of "Vague But True" and have never used the phrase "Vague But True" to promote any service or business activity and, as far as we know, he isn't an expert in Macintosh or Apple computers.
Investigating, we did find that Tim Bedore has a Web site called "Vague But True," and Amazon lists a "Vague But True" CD. It should be noted that, at no time, did Washington Apple Pi ever publish any part of the "Vague But True" Web site or the "Vague But True" CDs. Alas, we've failed to check to see if he has published any part of our magazine or CDs, but that seems unlikely.
A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office database does turn up a hit for "vague but true:"
Word Mark VAGUE BUT TRUE
Goods and Services IC 041. US 107. G & S: entertainment services; namely, a
continuing comedy show distributed over audio media. FIRST USE: 19920500. FIRST
USE IN COMMERCE: 19920700
Mark Drawing Code (1) TYPED DRAWING
Serial Number 74399750
Filing Date June 7, 1993
Current Filing Basis 1A
Original Filing Basis 1A
Published for Opposition October 4, 1994
Registration Number 1870030
Registration Date December 27, 1994
Owner (REGISTRANT) Bedore, Timothy J. INDIVIDUAL UNITED STATES 505 South
Barrington, #21 Los Angeles CALIFORNIA 90049
Type of Mark SERVICE MARK
Affidavit Text SECT 8 (6-YR). SECTION 8(10-YR) 20050110.
Renewal 1ST RENEWAL 20050110
Live/Dead Indicator LIVE"
This does, indeed, suggest that it would be unwise for any other comedy show to use the phrase "vague but true" as a slogan for promoting their comedy act.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Washington Apple Pi has never titled any publication "vague but true" and has never used a slogan or advertising phrase of "vague but true" or published the contents of any other publication titled "vague but true," we are fully abiding by Tim Bedore's request and have removed the page.