Somehow, NBC failed to secure its own intellectual property and now is scrambling to recover those rights.
At first blush, it would seem that a lawsuit that has emerged is a clear-cut case of stolen intellectual property. Last week, NBC-Universal has filed a lawsuit alleging that a company has wrongfully used branded content from its sitcom “The Office” in a wrongful trademark registration suit. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the network is battling to get the rights to the name Dunder Mifflin, the fictional office supply sales business featured in the hit program.
“The Office” has been an immense hit, both during its nine-year run on the network as well as in the aftermarket since it ended its primary broadcast run. The show is a steadfast earner in syndication as well as a massive hit in streaming. For years, it was ranked as the top selection on Netflix, with that platform paying nearly $100 million to secure the rights for the final year in 2020 before it moved to NBC’s own streaming platform Peacock.
It would appear that move was behind the impetus of the current lawsuit, which NBC has filed against Jay Kennet Media Group. The network is alleging that the company is actively “trademark squatting,” the act of obtaining particular rights in order to sell them back to the rightful originator. While Kennette Media does engage in a level of intellectual property acquisition, this appears to be both more than a case of simply sitting on a particular trademark, and of NBC failing in its own retention practices.
Kennette Media has been actively offering up products under the Dunder Mifflin name, including branded reams of office paper, as portrayed on the program. Amazingly NBC was late to this reality with its own product. The current lawsuit was filed after the broadcaster sought to register the Dunder Mifflin name with the U.S. Patent Office and was subsequently denied, a result of the name already having been registered with Kennette Media. The real curiosity is with the timing.
NBC-U had not made the effort to register its own intellectual property until 2020, long after “The Office” had ended its broadcast run in 2013. Ostensibly this was done to maximize potential product branding as a tie-in with the move of the program to the Peacock service, but the mystery is how the company had not previously secured all of the affiliated trademarks before that time. When NBC made its initial application, Kennette had already been in possession of the Dunder Mifflin name for at least four years, selling paper reams and other items under that moniker.
Another question is how it escaped the notice of the entertainment giant. If there is a claim of damages and compensation it seems at odds with the appearance of indifference. NBC-U showed no interest in its own property until seven years after the conclusion of the show, and Kennette had been using the Dunder Mifflin without notice of the legal division prior. Usually, corporate giants are rather militant about protecting their brands.
Now, well after the fact, NBC has decided it is time to take action, nearly a decade since filming was completed. The interest in the copyright is a testament to how popular the show has remained, and it is a measure of the value the brand retains after all of this time.
It seems like the kind of move even The World’s Best Boss would have picked up on far earlier.