I'm putting together a student film and one of the scenes calls for a box of cinamon toast crunch. What is the copyright situation for this? Are we going to run into trouble for using a box in the film?
If you use someone's trademark for commercial purposes without their permission you may be liable for, at least, trademark infringement and/or trademark dilution depending on the facts, but there may be arguments of fair use, deminimis use, and/or first amendment arguments, which may or may not succeed.
There may also be copyright infringement concerns.
It may be more prudent to simply use a generic box of cereal, rather than a brand name.
You should discuss with an intellectual property attorney in a private consultation.
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Use of such an object in your film can lead to two types of IP issues. Copyright would go to the "look" of the packaging itself. Trademark would go to the brand's marks. Note I said "marks" because the packaging could display several marks. Being a student filmmaker will not get you off the hook if the owners of the copyright and trademarks appearing on the filmed package decide to object. Best to mask what appears on the box. Also, best to check with an IP attorney before you take further action.
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In this context, it is not going to be trademark infringement unless you are somehow presenting a false association with the trademark holder and being that this will be used in film that is highly unlikely.
What is more likely is copyright infringement because you are conspicuously displaying their work (the box cover art, etc.) in your film. As a rule of thumb, things that appear incidentally in the background of your shots are not going to be a concern. But the more those works become a focal point of your scene the greater the threat of infringement.
There was a recent case that settled where a well-known car air freshener company's product, a bee air freshener, as used in the Transformer movie. I believe the scene opened with a close-up of this product on Bumble Bee's review mirror, held for several beats, then the camera panned out. The argument was that this was more than just incidental use and because their product was a focal point of the scene the film maker should have obtained a license to use the work. As I said, the case settled, but you get the idea of the kind of arguments that can be made.
If you need clarification, I suggest that you consult with a lawyer in private and discuss your objectives in more detail. You can start by calling around to several for a free phone consultation, get some insights then pick the best fit to work with.
DISCLAIMER: this is not intended to be specific legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. No attorney-client relationship is formed with the law firm of Natoli-Legal, LLC on the basis of this posting.
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