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CHRISTIAN v. ALLOY

June 15, 2004.

COLEEN A. CHRISTIAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ALLOY, INC., ALLOY ONLINE, INC., 17th STREET PRODUCTIONS, and CECILY VON ZIEGESAR, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HAROLD BAER, JR., District Judge

OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiff Coleen A. Christian ("Christian") moved to preliminarily enjoin defendants' allegedly unauthorized use of her GOSSIP GIRL® trademark, which defendants opposed. Oral argument on the motion was held on May 11, 2004. For the reasons stated on the record at the conclusion of the oral argument and the reasons set forth below, Christian's motion is denied. As required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a), following are the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

  Christian is an entertainment reporter for Steppin' Out, a free regional entertainment magazine reaching some 75,000 souls at colleges, supermarkets, delicatessens, sidewalk street boxes, etc. in northern New Jersey, southern New York, the Jersey Shore, and Manhattan. Since 1999, Christian has written a weekly entertainment column using the GOSSIP GIRL® mark, which contains news and information about celebrities and Hollywood. Christian's columns also prominently feature her name, photograph, and the subtitle, "Hollywood Will Never Be the Same." Christian has written approximately 195 columns, which have appeared in a number of websites in addition to their publication in Steppin' Out magazine. Christian has also appeared on three nationally broadcast television shows and two newspapers have written articles about her column. On October 29, 2001, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO") registered Christian's GOSSIP GIRL® mark based on her January 29, 2001 application. Christian first learned of defendants' use of the phrase "Gossip Girl" in April 2002.

  Seventeenth Street Productions is a division of Alloy, Inc., which was formally known as Alloy Online, Inc. (collectively, "Alloy"). Alloy is a media and marketing company that targets teenagers and young adults. In the Spring of 2000, Alloy thought up the idea for a series of novels set in a fictitious private high school located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. These novels, authored by Cecily von Ziegesar, are targeted for the niche market of teenage girls and use the phrase "Gossip Girl" in the title. The novels have an anonymous narrator named "Gossip Girl," who posts gossip about the characters on an internet site that contain references to celebrities. The books' trade dress features the Cecily von Ziegesar's name, a photograph of teenage girls or boys (with a portion of their faces cut off), and an open mouth lips logo. The second half of the title for each book (other than the first in the series) is the phrase, "A Gossip Girl Novel."*fn1

  Alloy applied for a trademark after it decided to publish a series of novels because of the success of the first book, Gossip Girl. The USPTO, however, rejected Alloy's December 30, 2002 application for use of the "Gossip Girl" mark in connection with entertainment, film, video, television, etc. because it was so similar to Christian's mark that it was likely to cause confusion. The USPTO approved Alloy's application once Alloy restricted the use of the mark to fictional teenagers living in New York City.*fn2 Alloy has published five novels in the series to date, the first of which was released in April 2002. Two of the novels have been listed on the New York Times bestseller lists for children's books. Alloy has contemplated both a television series and movie based on the Gossip Girl series. To that end, Alloy began negotiations with Warner Brothers to produce a Gossip Girl movie, although the project is presently on-hold.

  Christian initially filed suit against the defendants for their alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition on May 23, 2003.*fn3 In June 2003, Christian, through her counsel, sent a cease and desist letter to Alloy in which she informed it of her federal trademark infringement lawsuit. Thereafter, Christian voluntarily discontinued the action on September 25, 2003. From approximately June to December 2003, the parties unsuccessfully attempted to settle the matter. Christian then initiated the instant action on December 29, 2003*fn4 and re-alleged violations of 15 U.S.C. § 1114, 1125(a) and New York's unfair competition law. In her complaint, Christian sought, inter alia, a preliminary and permanent injunction, an accounting, an award of Christian's damages, to be trebled, defendants' profits, and reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. On March 23, 2004, Christian moved for a preliminary injunction. Defendants opposed the grant of preliminary relief and moved for expedited discovery, which was granted.

  II. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

  A preliminary injunction is "an extraordinary and drastic remedy which should not be routinely granted." Med. Soc'y of State of N.Y. v. Toia, 560 F.2d 535, 538 (2d Cir. 1977). To obtain injunctive relief, the movant must demonstrate: "(a) that it will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction and (b) either (i) a likelihood of success on the merits or (ii) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation and a balance of hardships tipping decidedly in the movant's favor." Tom Doherty Assocs., Inc. v. Saban Entm't, Inc., 60 F.3d 27, 33 (2d Cir. 1995). Here Christian seeks a mandatory injunction, i.e., an injunction that would "alter the status quo by commanding some positive act." Id. at 34. A mandatory injunction requires a "clear" or "substantial" showing of a likelihood of success on the merits. Jolly v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 468, 473 (2d Cir. 1996). Christian has failed to meet the lesser test, no less the test for a mandatory injunction.

  A. Irreparable Harm

  Christian's two-year delay alone may be sufficient to negate the irreparable harm. The Second Circuit has held that "any . . . presumption of irreparable harm is inoperative if the plaintiff has delayed either in bringing suit or in moving for preliminary injunctive relief . . . [S]uch delay . . . may, standing alone, . . . preclude the granting of preliminary injunctive relief . . . because the failure to act sooner undercuts the sense of urgency that ordinarily accompanies a motion for preliminary relief and suggests that there is, in fact, no irreparable injury." Tough Traveler, Ltd. v. Outbound Prods., 60 F.3d 964, 968 (2d Cir. 1995) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Although Christian first learned of the defendants' alleged infringement and unfair competition in April 2002, she did not seek to avail herself of legal remedies until over a year later when she first filed suit in May 2003. Christian then voluntarily discontinued that action, only to re-file some seven months later. Thereafter, she then waited an additional three months to move for preliminary relief. Any irreparable harm is belied by the sheer length of time since she discovered her alleged injury and the number of previous opportunities she had to move for the same relief. Courts have denied preliminary injunctive relief based on far fewer and shorter delays. E.g., Christopher Norman Chocolates, Ltd. v. Schokinag Chocolates N. Am., Inc., 270 F. Supp.2d 432, 438 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (eight to nine months); Brockmeyer v. The Hearst Corp., No. 01 Civ. 7746, 2002 WL 1402320, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2002) (sixteen months); Greenpoint Fin. Corp. v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., Inc., 116 F. Supp.2d 405, 409 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (four months).

  Christian argued that there was, in fact, no delay because she moved rapidly — within one month — for injunctive relief after she learned of Alloy's movie deal with Warner Brothers. Christian's attempt to re-frame the issue and thus re-set the relevant timeframe in this manner is unpersuasive. Her pleadings, motion papers, and argument in Court on May 11, 2004 all indicated that the thrust of the alleged infringement is defendants' book series, not the proposed movie deal, which, parenthetically, is apparently going nowhere, at least not for the time being. And while Christian argued that she too contemplated using her mark in a Hollywood film venture, she has presented no credible evidence that she seriously intended to use the mark in that realm. To prevail, Christian may not rely on "a mere possibility that [she] will be irreparably harmed." Med. Econ. Co., Inc. v. Prescribing Reference, Inc., 294 F. Supp.2d 456, 450 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). Instead, she "must demonstrate an injury that is neither remote nor speculative, but actual and imminent." Tucker Anthony Realty Corp. v. Schlesinger, 888 F.2d 969, 975 (2d Cir. 1989) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Christian's perceived inability to pursue future film ventures with her GOSSIP GIRL® mark is thus too remote to support a finding of irreparable harm. Christian further argued that a preliminary injunction was necessary to prevent her "from being buried underneath the avalanche of media surrounding [defendants'] movie." Tr. at 6:6-7. Even if it were likely that defendants' movie would be a blockbuster success and inundate media channels to her detriment when and if it ever surfaces, Christian offers no evidence of success on the merits.

  Finally, Christian argued that she should not be punished for attempting to resolve the dispute without legal intervention. Settlement is highly favored by the courts and Christian's efforts to amicably resolve the matter are to be applauded, but the mere fact that she attempted to negotiate a settlement does not relieve her of her burden to demonstrate irreparable harm. Settlement negotiations and a motion for preliminary relief are in no way mutually exclusive; indeed, the gossip surrounding such a motion for preliminary relief might have enhanced the settlement ...


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