Angry Birds and Intellectual Property Law in Cambodia

I had lunch the other day with an IP lawyer, and the issues he’s dealing with on behalf of his clients  are fascinating. In Cambodia, intellectual property law—broadly speaking, the legal protection of inventions, ideas, trademarks, and artistic words—is not quite the same as in the United States and poses a challenge for both domestic and international attorneys.

Consider the “Angry Birds School,” a private school:

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Angry Birds Foreign Language School. It may be tough to tell from this photo, but the logo contains the red bird from Angry Birds. Source: Phnom Penh Post.

As reported by the Phnom Penh post at the time of the school’s opening:

Cambodia youths have taken to the characters from the popular game Angry Birds like fish to water – or a bird to the sky as the case may be – proudly plastering the adversarial avian avatars on everything from T-shirts to motorbikes.

Now, a school director in Banteay Meanchey province is banking on the assumption that kids will also want to attend a school unofficially endorsed by the bellicose birds.

The Angry Birds Foreign Language School – which serves children as young as 6 and as old as 15 – was created about a month ago in Banteay Meanchey’s Serei Sophorn town, a rural outpost that school director Yem Nary said could be improved by education, with the help of a little savvy marketing.

“I had an idea that if I created a school and gave it a strange name to attract the children, then they would ask their parents to study at my school,” she explained.

Flying on the backs of such popular characters, Nary said, has drawn in more than 50 students, all of whom come in curious about the name.

Without the furious fowls, she maintained, the school – which charges 10,000 riel (US$2.50) per month – would have folded immediately given that private schools in Serei Sophorn have closed in the past for lack of students.

But for all the help they’ve been in Nary’s endeavour, the creators of Angry Birds are, to her knowledge, unaware of the school, given that Nary herself did not ask permission to use the logo.

“I did not use it for selling, or to put on a product and sell it,” she said, expressing her belief that the copyright holders wouldn’t squawk at the liberty she’s taken.

“But if they said I use this logo illegally, I can change it, but I used it to only attract the students.”

Well, of course, she is using the Angry Birds name to sell something, in this case tuition, but this seems likely to fly below the radar, like launching one of the Angry Birds at low altitude to destroy the pigs’ hideout.

I’ve also heard that there’s a “Facebook School” and, driving to the airport today, I saw the CIA First International School.  I guess having a catchy name for a school is important! Interestingly, CIA First’s website says they are accredited by WASC, a regional accreditor in the U.S.

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There are also interesting copyright issues.  In general, Cambodia extends protection only to works that are registered in Cambodia.  Foreign works do not automatically enjoy copyright protection, at least not yet.  This is an area of rapid movement, as Cambodia is a recent party to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Cambodia has until 2021 to come into full compliance with TRIPS, including regulations related to foreign works.

More here and here.

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About Larry Cunningham

Law professor and Vice Dean at St. John's Law School. Former prosecutor and defense attorney.
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