Film Office’s New “Billy Penn Music” Causes Confusion

Media outlet Billy Penn is "concerned."

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On Wednesday morning, when I was Twitter-followed by an entity known as Billy Penn Music, I thought, Cool, Billy Penn has some new music site—– meaning Billy Penn the media outlet. But it turns out that Billy Penn Music has absolutely nothing to do with Billy Penn.

Billy Penn Music is a new music sync agency created by Greater Philadelphia Film Office head Sharon Pinkenson and Nicole Shiner, the film office’s director for operations and government affairs. The agency is a for-profit subsidiary of the non-profit film office, and the board includes Philly DJ Jerry Blavat, director Lee Daniels, longtime Roots manager Shawn Gee, and Live Nation executive Geoff Gordon, among others.

Now, if you have no idea what a sync agency is, that’s OK. We didn’t either.

Filmmakers need music in their films, and a sync agency like Billy Penn Music connects musicians with those filmmakers and handles the licensing and rights. Billy Penn Music is different than most agencies of its kind because it specializes in music from Pennsylvania.

While you probably don’t have most of the artists and groups on your playlist, the Billy Penn Music catalog does include names like Chill Moody, Low Cut Connie, DJ Rob Paine, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A filmmaker can go to the Billy Penn Music website and search the catalog using a variety of criteria. So, let’s say a filmmaker needs a song that conveys a sense of agitation. You just select “agitated” from the menu of “moods,” and, voila, a list of “agitated” songs, like part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor. Want something happy? How about Chill Moody’s “Naturally”?

The idea is that the filmmaker gets tax credits for using the songs, and the musicians make money that they otherwise wouldn’t have made.

That’s all well and good, but what’s up with the name?

Media outlet Billy Penn launched in October 2014 and quickly made a name for itself, with major stories about the startup landing in USA Today, Columbia Journalism Review and Philly Mag. That recent Dumpster Pool story that everybody was talking about came from Billy Penn.

Meanwhile, Billy Penn Music launched in July, with its arrival heralded in a trade publication called Philly Ad News.

But it just so happens that the film office has actually been using “Billy Penn” since long before Jim Brady brought his Billy Penn to Philadelphia.

Pinkenson launched Billy Penn Picture Corp. in 2004 as a company that brokered film tax credits. It only lasted for about a year, Pinkenson tells us, and when the film office decided to get into the music business this year, Pinkenson decided to use the name again.

Naturally, there has been some confusion, like when Temple Career Center tweeted something from Billy Penn Music thinking that it was from the media outlet.

Billy Penn founder and publisher Brady says he’s aware of the confusion and that he’s “concerned.”

Such brand confusion frequently leads to formal trademark disputes, but it sounds like anyone trying to defend a “Billy Penn” trademark might not have such an easy go of it.

According to prominent Philadelphia intellectual attorney Jordan LaVine, the nature of the name itself makes it hard to defend.

“Because the name ‘Billy Penn’ has significance in the Philadelphia area, that makes the mark less strong than a more distinct mark like ‘Fandango’ or something like that,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the infringement test comes down to whether an average consumer encountering the respective marks thinks there is some affiliation between the products or services based on the similarity of the marks.”

In other words, if you want to open up Billy Penn Water Ice or Billy Penn Craft Brewing Company or the Billy Penn Co-working Space, go right ahead.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.