What do Sir Isaac Newton, Barbie and the Da Vinci Code have in common? They have all found
themselves in the court of law defending their intellectual property protections. Intellectual property
cases are plentiful and can drag on for years, incurring exorbitant legal fees along the way, as the lines
between idea ownership can be quite blurry. Here we take a look at five of the most famous cases in the
IP law history books.
A&M Records Inc. vs. Napster Inc.
Perhaps one of the most famous cases in intellectual property law history, the 2000 A&M Records Inc.
vs. Napster Inc. lawsuit made its way to the 9th Circuit of a U.S. Court of Appeals. When 18-year-old
Shawn Fanning, a student at Northeastern University, became the first to market with a peer-to-peer
music sharing service that allowed users to download MP3s for free, Napster became a colossal force of
disruption to the music industry. That is until A&M Records, along with 17 other companies and
subsidiaries, accused Napster of “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement”, and the court of
law found that the rights to the music were owned by the music artist and the record companies, forcing
Napster out of the free music sharing business, and into bankruptcy. This case is remembered as a
defining case of the 21st century, as it was one of the first to address the impact of online peer-to-peer
file-sharing online on copyright law.
Sir Isaac Newton v. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
This intellectual property case dates all the way back to the 18th century, and the great Sir Isaac Newton,
esteemed by many as the father of Calculus. But was he? While many of us may remember learning
about the mathematical genius of Isaac Newton in our school days, a German mathematician and
philosopher by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz may have had his intellectual property rights
violated by Newton himself. Leibniz was the first to publish papers on the topic 20 years before
Newton’s famous body of work “Opticks” asserted Newton as the brainchild behind the birth of
modern-day mathematics. Newton would go on to state that Liebniz had plagiarized previous drafts of
Newton’s original work years prior. Sadly, Liebniz passed away before the matter was settled. While it
may be largely regarded in the annals of history that Isaac Newton is the undisputed father of math,
many historians give credit to them both as co-inventors.
Mattel Inc. v. MGA Entertainment Inc.
For over 40 years, Barbie was the undisputed queen of the doll industry, but all that would change in
2001 when she finally met her competition when the Bratz dolls showed up on the scene – and stole
about 40% market share over the course of 5 years. Mattel launched its “My Scene” Barbie collection in
response to the competition, and Bratz’ creators, MGA Entertainment started the long and litigious war
that would go on for a good part of the decade. Mattel struck back and accused Brats’ designer Carter
Bryant of conceptualizing Bratz dolls while still on Mattel’s payroll. While both companies have had
multimillion-dollar wins as this case has made its way through the judicial system, there are still cases
pending over a decade later.
Baigent & Leigh v Random House Group Ltd
In the 2006 case of Baigent & Leigh v Random House Group Ltd, a London court was tasked with
determining if Dan Brown’s 2006 blockbuster historical fiction novel The Da Vinci Code plagiarized the
non-fiction work of authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, both published
by Random House, two decades apart. A London court found that while portions of The Da Vinci Code
did closely mirror the fact-based historical narrative crafted by Baigent and Leigh, Brown was not guilty
of copyright infringement, since history itself is not protected by copyright. The judgment found that
“…there is no copyright infringement either by textual copying or non-textual copying of a substantial
part of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” The two authors were required to pay close to £3 million in legal fees.
Kellogg Co. v National Biscuit Co.
This landmark case dates all the way back to 1938 – and set out to determine who ultimately gets the
credit for the healthy, yet polarizing cereal ubiquitously known as shredded wheat. Just before the turn
of the century, Henry Perky patented his pillow-shaped cereal he called Shredded Whole Wheat. When
the cereal gained traction in the market, Kellogg’s started formulation for their own similar cereal. In
1930, the National Biscuit Company, a successor of Perky’s company, filed a lawsuit against the Kellogg
Company, arguing that Kellogg’s cereal was in trademark violation to their Shredded Wheat brand.
Kellogg responded with their own suit, on the grounds that the National Biscuit Company was
attempting to creating a monopoly on the shredded wheat cereal market. In 1938, the case was
escalated all the way to the Supreme Court, where Supreme Court Judge Brandeis ruled that the term
“shredded wheat” was simply descriptive – and therefore not subject to brand name trademark
protection. Judge Brandeis’ decision remains noteworthy for the precedent it set relative to brand
names, their trademarks, and how marketers can describe their products.