Although the original TMZ article sounds like an overzealous MJ Estate went after an irrelevant popcorn site, the case isn’t about popcorn – it’s about trademarks. Below you will find a detailed explanation of the trademark dispute.
In late 2012, GourmetGiftBaskets (GGB) have tried to register trademarks – Kingofpop.com and Kingofpop – with the US Trademark Office. They had bought the website domain from a MJ fan site for $7,000 earlier in 2012. In late 2013 (when the mark was published for opposition), Estate filed an opposition with the trademark office.
Why? Because “King of Pop” happens to be a registered trademark of MJ Estate and have been extensively used in official products and marketing campaigns – including 2008 “King of Pop” greatest hits album, TII related and posthumous merchandise. Furthermore in 2012 when GGB was attempting to register “King of Pop” website, MJ Estate was using it during Bad25 release in Pepsi MJ Advertisements and Pepsi Cans.
Obviously the trademark categories Estate and GGB uses as well as the products they release under the “King of Pop” name are quite different (music, merchandise, apparel etc. versus popcorn). However Estate argued that MJ is widely known as “King of Pop” and this could create a confusion in the minds of the consumers.
For some readers, Estate’s arguments of popcorn creating confusion and misleading association with MJ might not make much sense. However if you go to Amazon, CNN etc. and search for “King of Pop”, you get results for MJ products/articles AND advertisements for King of Pop Popcorn. As the search engines and/or Google AdWords associate Michael Jackson with King of Pop, the advertisement for popcorn routinely appear on Michael Jackson related webpages.
In their opposition Estate is relying on Trademark Act 2, which prohibits registration of marks which falsely suggests a connection with a person. In order to win such argument Estate will mainly need to show that the “King of Pop” mark is a close approximation of MJ’s name or identity and that MJ is so famous that the use of “King of Pop” with the services, people will presume a connection with MJ.
There is evidence that people see a connection between “King of Pop” and MJ. For example GGB admitted that at least in two instances people in the food industry pointed out the connection between “King of Pop” and MJ. Even there has been at least one article written mentioning MJ while introducing the King of Pop popcorn products. Article wrote: “The King of Pop – forget Michael Jackson, there’s never been a better name for a popcorn company”.As you can see even an article written to introduce the popcorn products were mentioning the MJ connection to the "King of Pop" name.
I imagine GGB’s defense arguments belittling MJ wasn’t well received by MJ Estate. GGB in its initial answer referred to MJ as “a musician with some notoriety” and argued “King of Pop” nickname could apply to anyone at a given time. GGB wrote “few people agree on who it should apply to or even what it means” or “The King of Pop nickname is typically applied to a popular artist of the times”.
In an answer filled with a lot of examples including Encyclopedia Britannica, articles, news stories and social media searches, Estate argued that “King of Pop” unmistakably identifies Michael Jackson. Estate also provided examples of official merchandise that included the use of “King of Pop”. GGB countered with several articles mentioning new King of Pop (for Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake etc.) and an article stating MJ wasn’t the first or the last King of Pop. GGB said it was harsh reality for Estate that MJ isn’t the only king of pop. Estate rebutted this with saying almost all of those articles referred to MJ being the reigning King of Pop – again supporting their position that MJ is unmistakably identified as the “King of Pop”. Also none of the other artists ever used that to refer themselves or used it in their marketing/products. Furthermore GGB isn’t denying that MJ is referred to as King of Pop, their whole argument seems to be other people can be referred to as King of Pop as well. As for the “MJ wasn’t the first King of Pop, or the last” article, Estate argued that while the article discussed if MJ was factually the King of Pop, the article clearly acknowledges that MJ is referred as King of Pop and commercially used that nickname.
After trying to resolve the dispute at Trademark office and trying to settle (and not succeeding), Estate has filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the GGB’s registration and use of the domain name KingofPop.com constitutes a false and misleading association with Michael Jackson under the Lanham Act due to his reputation of being the “King of Pop,” dilutes MJ’s famous “King of Pop” mark, violates his right of publicity, and constitutes cybersquatting under Federal and California state law. The estate holds federal registrations for “King of Pop” in connection with several goods and services and claims that the mark is widely recognized by the public such that it has become famous.
The complaint also makes it obvious that Estate didn’t believe GGB’s explanations about their selection of the company/website name. GGB claimed they had conversations and believed “King of Pop” was “rather ubiquitous without any specific defined identification with a single individual or thing”. However GGB also claimed they discussed how “it would be undesirable to have an association with Michael Jackson given that his reputation prior to his death was not always viewed as terribly good or wholesome”. Estate take issue with both negative towards MJ and quite unbelievable claims. They also contradict each other. GGB simultaneously claim “King of Pop” was ubiquitous and did not refer to anyone particular but they also discussed its association with MJ. Added with the claims that pop is a nickname for popcorn, Estate believes GGB tried to register “King of Pop” trademark with bad faith intent to capitalize on MJ’s nickname and goodwill associated with it.
A final note: This is one of the rare times that a copyright / trademark / merchandise infringement case makes the news. Estate directly and through their partners (such as Sony, Bravado etc.) pursue a lot of infringement cases. Most of those type of cases end quickly with a settlement – meaning the infringing party stopping what they are doing. Plus this is not the first time there was a dispute about “King of Pop” trademark. US Trademark Office itself has denied 2-3 attempts to register “King of Pop” as a trademark citing its use by Michael Jackson. Estate have filed two other oppositions in attempts to register “King of Pop” by other parties as well. First one was against a fireworks company that tried to register “King of Pop” and the second one was an individual trying to register “Hip Hop King of Pop”. Neither registration happened and ended with settlement and/or third parties not pursuing the trademark registration attempts further. So it is quite out of character for this dispute to continue on for this long and result in a civil lawsuit.