IP & Copyright

Author Sues Toyota Over B.B. King Commercial

By  | 

Author Eric Dahl claims that Toyota stole a story from his book and used it in a recent Toyota Camry commercial.

According to Dahl’s complaint, his book, “B.B. King’s Lucille and the Loves Before Her,” contains a story that is similar to the story that occurs in a Toyota Camry Commercial.  In particular, Dahl alleges that he visited a pawn shop in Las Vegas and purchased a Gibson Lucille guitar.  He researched the guitar’s origin and discovered that the Gibson Lucille—the Prototype 1—was the same guitar that Gibson gave B.B. King on his eightieth birthday that was later stolen from his home. Dahl stated that he agreed to give King the Gibson guitar without compensation, and King arranged a meeting where King autographed another Gibson Lucille and gave it to Dahl in appreciation for his generosity.

If you have watched television in the last few weeks then you may have seen a Toyota Camry commercial where a girl finds a guitar, tracks down the previous owner — who happens to be B.B. King — gives him the guitar, and is given an autographed guitar in return. Take a look at the commercial below.

Dahl claims that Toyota’s commercial is a derivative work and is suing for copyright infringement.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a derivative work as “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a ‘derivative work.’”

Under United States Copyright Law, derivative works give authors exclusive rights to license new works based on the author’s work. For example, motion pictures based on novels are considered derivative works because they are works based on the author’s work (i.e., the novel). In this case, the Toyota Camry commercial may be a derivative work because it is based on Dahl’s work, and Dahl never licensed use of his book to Toyota.

In order for Dahl to have a claim for copyright infringement, he must prove two elements: that Dahl has a valid copyright in his work, and that Toyota copied constituent elements of his book.  In other words, the second element means that Dahl has to prove that Toyota actually copied Dahl’s work, and Toyota improperly appropriated Dahl’s work.

Proving copying is a factual question, which can be proven by direct evidence like testimony; however, copying is usually proven through circumstantial evidence like proving that Toyota had access to Dahl’s work, and there is a substantial similarity between Dahl’s book and the Toyota Camry commercial.

Dahl claims that Toyota had access to his book. The Entertainment Law Digest states that “members of Gibson Guitar who were aware of his book and the story of the returned Gibson Lucille prototype were consulted by Toyota and the advertising production crew and confirmed the ad is based on the account in Dahl’s book.”

Thus because Dahl owns a valid copyright of his work, and Toyota may have had access to Dahl’s book, there might be circumstantial evidence that Toyota committed copyright infringement. However, we will have to wait and see Toyota’s answer.  My guess is that Toyota will claim fair use in defense of its commercial.

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry is a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law whose goal is to become a publishing and media law attorney. He has interned at William Morris Endeavor, Rodale, Inc., Columbia University Press, and is currently interning at Hachette Book Group and volunteering at the Media Law Resource Center, which has given him insight into the legal aspects of the publishing and media industries. Contact Joe at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.



Send this to friend