The American film industry, once the bastion of Hollywood and Southern California, has been making a strong push towards the eastern U.S. in recent years. The region surrounding Atlanta, GA, in particular has seen a great deal of increased business activity from video production companies. Through the course of the 2016 fiscal year, film and TV production industries created $7 billion worth of economic impact in Georgia, $2 billion of which were directly attributable for spending coming from 245 feature film and television productions shot within the state. In June of this year, a nonprofit film organization ranked Georgia as tied for 3rd worldwide alongside Louisiana in terms of film production, trailing California and the United Kingdom. The video production industry in Georgia is growing so fast, it’s outstripping the available talent in the area and pushing public and private academic institutions to develop training programs for technical designers.
All of this activity in the film and TV production sector has brought about greater investment in production studios across Georgia. During the spring of 2016, development began to turn a 53-acre site in southwestern DeKalb County into a major film and TV production studio. Valhalla Studios was scheduled to open in early 2017 and the $70-million facility will offer nine sound stages with a combined total area of 200,000 square feet.
Although the studio construction itself seems to be carrying on apace, Valhalla Studios has gotten itself into legal trouble over its chosen name. On October 19th, the studio was named as a defendant in a trademark infringement suit filed by Valhalla Motion Pictures, a California video production company, which is best known for developing and producing the hit television show The Walking Dead. The trademark infringement suit is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia (N.D. Ga.).
Valhalla Motion Pictures has hit a true home run with its production of The Walking Dead, one of the most popular shows on television right now and shown on AMC. The show, currently in its seventh season, topped the Nielsen ratings for 2015 in terms of adult viewers aged 18 to 49 and had an average audience of 19.7 million viewers for each episode. In terms of total views, The Walking Dead was ranked fourth by Nielsen in terms of total viewers behind NBC’s Sunday Night Football, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and then NCIS. As the complaint notes, The Walking Dead has also inspired a pair of popular spin-off shows: Fear The Walking Dead, which serves as a prequel to The Walking Dead, and Talking Dead, a talk show about the series which AMC broadcasts after new episodes are aired.
Interestingly for this case, not only is The Walking Dead set in the Atlanta region, Valhalla Motion Pictures conducts much of the series’ filming in Atlanta. “Indeed, the show is so popular and so connected with Atlanta, that it has spawned tours of the Atlanta area for the show’s fans to visit filming locations,” the complaint reads. In the plaintiff’s view, the defendant’s use of Valhalla in the studio title looks to “capitalize on Valhalla’s success with The Walking Dead and that show’s Atlanta ties.” The plaintiff alleges that while the defendants have not, and cannot, deny that consumer confusion has occurred because of the use of the name Valhalla, defendants have also refused to comply with multiple cease and desist requests, after which the plaintiff decided to file the trademark infringement suit.
In trademark litigation, the amount of time in which a trademark has been legally used by a party can help a plaintiff make a stronger case against an infringing party. Although Valhalla Movie Studios is a fairly new entity, Valhalla Motion Pictures has used its trademarks and service marks in connection with entertainment related goods since 1997. Valhalla Motion Pictures has also used “Valhalla Entertainment” as a mark since 2010 and “Valhalla Television” since 2012.
The trademarks owned by Valhalla Motion Pictures are seen at the conclusion of The Walking Dead episodes as well as other well-known entertainment properties developed by the production studio. Aside from the aforementioned television shows, this includes a number of major motion pictures including 1998’s Armaggedon, 1999’s Virus, 2002’s Clockstoppers, 2003’s The Hulk, 2004’s The Punisher and then Aeon Flux, produced in 2005. The plaintiff notes that the total amount of box office receipts for Valhalla’s film properties alone exceed $500 million in value.
Given plaintiff Valhalla Motion Pictures’ activities in the film and television production industries, both members of the public as well as industry professionals could reasonably believe that a movie studio taking the name of Valhalla would be an offered by Valhalla Motion Pictures and not a separate entity. The plaintiff also argues that it would not have been hard for the defendant to discover that the name Valhalla was already in use in connection with entertainment related goods. “A simple search on the USPTO website would have revealed Valhalla’s registrations, and a simple Internet search would have revealed Valhalla’s prior use in commerce and existing website at valhallamotionpictures.com,” the complaint reads.
The trademark infringement suit carries five claims of relief being sought by plaintiffs. Aside from federal trademark infringement claims, the suit also claims unfair competition under federal code as well as a number of Georgia state law violations, including deceptive trade practices, trademark dilution and unfair competition. The plaintiff seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting defendants from using the Valhalla name, the destruction of all infringing Valhalla advertising and disgorgement of defendant’s profits. Plaintiff Valhalla Motion Pictures also seeks advanced damages under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a) which allows a court to award compensation to a defendant above the amount found as actual damages based on the circumstances of a particular case.
For the defendant’s part, it doesn’t seem as though there will be much reason to believe that they’ll continue their use of the Valhalla name. An article published October 20th by The Hollywood Reporter quotes a representative of Valhalla Studios as remarking that the studio is currently in the process of changing their name to avoid further confusion.