A Showtime miniseries produced by filmmaker/Hollywood mogul J.J. Abrams is being sued over its title: UFO. Specifically, while we may think of the term as a pretty generic word (or an acronym for “unidentified flying object” if you want to be technical), the word UFO is trademarked by UFO Magazine Inc. That company has filed a lawsuit in Wyoming (where they are incorporated), stating that the Showtimes series of the same name is infringing on their rights and devalues their future plans to make a film or television series using that mononymic title. Neither Showtime nor J.J. Abrams production company Bad Robot has issued a responding statement as of now. This is the series in question:
It does seem a little odd that as universally used a word as UFO can be copyrighted. However, there are certainly numerous instances of very powerful companies and individuals trying to trademark words generally held to be in popular vernacular. For example, Walt Disney Studios tried to copyright the Spanish term “Día de los Muertos” (or “Day of the Dead) in 2013 as part of the development of the Pixar film eventually released as Coco. The company backed down from that particular battle after massive backlash from Latinx groups and accusations of cultural infringement. Pop star Taylor Swift attempted to copyright the word “1989” around the time of the release of her album of the same name (and did actually copyright the phrase “This Sick Beat”). All of this is basically due to the specificity of United States trademark law that generally holds you cannot trademark the entire concept of a generic word like UFO, but you can copyright it for specific purposes.
In this case, UFO Magazine Inc holds the rights to that word when used in the context of “Entertainment in the nature of a television series and motion picture film series” and “Entertainment services, namely multimedia publishing of books, magazines, and electronic publications which deal with unidentified flying objects and related phenomena.” According to the lawsuit filed against Showtime Networks, this trademark was last filed in 2017. It also claims that in 2021, UFO Magazine Inc sent two separate cease and desist to Showtime to request them to stop infringing on the term. For what it is worth, UFO Magazine appears to be a currently defunct publication. The magazine was founded in 1986 by Vicki Ecker and Sherie Stark and seems to have changed publishers a number of times since. The last issue of the magazine (which was published on a varying and somewhat erratic schedule) was released in 2012.
J.J. Abrams’ UFO miniseries was released in August of 2021, and was made in conjunction with documentarian Glen Zipper (who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Undefeated in 2012). In the last several years, a number of reports and documents released to the public by the United States government revealing previously classified information on real-life UFOs has stoked public interest in the subject (although not as much as you’d think), so it would be surprising if there were not more people coming up with mini-series about flying saucers. But probably not many as famous as J.J. Abrams and Showtime.