Shame on you, Facebook, for overreaching

Facebook, I hereby grant to you an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use the following content: “Go jump in a lake.”

The past few days people have been talking about how scandalous it is that Facebook changed its terms of service to grab up a very broad license in content its users upload. I’m sure that Facebook is counting on this controversy to go wherever it is that memes go to die, to be forgotten just like most controversies-du-semaine. It probably will, but as the sentiment finds itself already on the decline, I’ll comment.

Here’s what the offending section of the Facebook terms of service now says, in relevant part:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.

I was pretty peeved when I learned that Facebook had modified its terms to get a broader license. But I was even more peeved when I read founder Mark Zuckerburg’s blog post from yesterday which tried to justify the changes. Of course Facebook must make sure it has the rights it needs in order to “show [users’ content and information] to the other people they’ve asked [it] to share it with.” But isn’t the right to share that content inherent in the very “asking”? Why be grabby?

Facebook is being content greedy. It’s commandeering more than it needs to run the service. An example Zuckerburg uses in the post concerns the text of a messages sent between friends. If one user deactivates his or her account, a copy of each message will still exist in the other friend’s inbox. Fine. I see the point. So get a license to store and display a copy of private messages. There’s no problem with that.

The bigger rub comes with photos and video users upload. Why does Facebook need a perpetual license for that? I don’t see any reason, whether from a technological or other practical standpoint, why photos and video could not or should not be deleted — and the license to Facebook terminated — when a user deactivates his or her account. YouTube doesn’t demand a license for content after it has been taken down by a user.

Zuckerburg’s post contains the following interesting statement: “In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.” Okay Mark, let’s talk about reality. I don’t want you using information about me, like my name, for commercial purposes. That’s reality. Why then do you demand to have the right to use my name and other information for commercial purposes? Are you suggesting that the terms of service as now written don’t reflect reality? I know they were written by lawyers, but surely your legal counsel can’t be that removed from the real world.

I like Facebook, and through it I have reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. But those connections are what’s important, not the intermediary. I may delete my photos off of there but I’ll probably keep using it, at least for now. But I’ll likely post less content. Shame on you, Facebook, and shame on you Mark Zuckerburg, for putting up a post just filled with platitudes, all while ignoring the fact there’s no reason for your new overreaching. That kind of stunt will invigorate those who want an alternative to Facebook, and will accellerate the process of making Facebook tomorrow’s Friendster.

Greedy photo courtesy Flickr user Gribiche under this Creative Commons license.

No personal jurisdiction over Australian defendant in Flickr right of publicity case

Chang v. Virgin Mobile USA, LLC, 2009 WL 111570 (N.D.Tex. January 16, 2009)

Allison Chang (through her mother, since Allison is a minor) and Justin Ho-Wee Wong sued Australian-based Virgin Mobile Pty Ltd. alleging a number of tort claims including misappropriation of Chang’s right of publicity. Plaintiffs claimed that Virgin wrongfully used Chang’s picture in an Australian advertising campaign.

What makes the case intriguing is that Virgin got the photo off of Flickr. Wong took the picture and uploaded it there, attaching a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license to it. [See the ad]

Virgin moved to dismiss the action for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that it lacked minimum contacts with the forum state of Texas to satisfy constitutional due process. The court granted the motion and dismissed the case.

Chang argued that the court could exercise personal jurisdiction based on three contacts between Virgin and Texas: (1) Virgin’s accessing a Flickr server located in Texas; (2) Virgin’s contract (i.e., the Creative Commons license) with Wong, a Texas resident; and (3) the intrastate effects of Virgin’s use of Chang’s photograph in the advertising campaign.

The court found that Chang failed to establish the downloaded photo was on a server located in Texas. Though Flickr does maintain servers there, the photo could have been on another server located in either Virginia or Texas. The court rejected Chang’s argument that because Virgin directed its conduct to Flickr.com, it could be haled into court anywhere there are Flickr servers.

The court similarly found that any purported agreement with Wong via the Creative Commons license was not sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction. The Creative Commons license did not require Virgin to perform any of its obligations in Texas. Instead, the license permitted the photograph to be used anywhere in the world. Furthermore, Chang failed to show that Virgin performed any of its obligations in Texas. It used the photograph solely in Australia, the one place that, according to Virgin’s evidence, it was authorized to sell its products and services. Finally, because Virgin only used the photograph in Australia, the license that permitted its use was centered in Australia, not Texas.

Chang’s final argument was that she felt the injurious effects of the alleged misappropriation in Texas and therefore, under the holding of Calder v. Jones, a court in Texas could hear the case. The court rejected this argument finding that even though Chang may have shown she was affected in Texas, plaintiffs failed to show that Virgin’s conduct was intentionally directed into the forum.

Australian flag image courtesy Flickr user euthman under this Creative Commons license.

Borat movie plaintiff not successful in image appropriation case

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Lemerond v. 20th Century Fox, No. 07-4635, 2008 WL 918579 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2008)

In the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the fictional Kazakh character (alter ego of comedian Sacha Cohen) journeys to America — all the while videotaping his interactions with unsuspecting people. One scene shows Borat greeting plaintiff Lemerond (“Hello nice to meet you. I’m new in town. My name a Borat”), then promptly running off in the opposite direction screaming (“Get away! What are you doing?”). (Those who have not seen the movie should note that the text does not capture the awkwardness of the exchange). The 13-second clip is shown twice in the full-length film, as well as in a movie trailer (but in the trailer the plaintiff’s face is blurred).

Plaintiff Lemerond filed suit under New York Civil Rights Law section 51 and New York common law for the unlawful use of his image. Defendant 20th Century Fox filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

Since New York does not recognize a common law right of privacy (the related right of publicity, like a trademark must be used in commerce to identify the source of goods or services — celebrities would normally enjoy such a right), the court decided the plaintiff’s suit on the basis of whether his likeness was used for “advertising purposes or purposes of the trade” without written permission. The most significant question was whether his appearance in the clips and trailer was for advertising purposes.

The court offered what might be considered a strained reading of the New York statute. It first cited to case law that held the statute was limited to “nonconsensual commercial appropriations of the name, portrait, or likeness of a living person.” It then pointed to another case which held that the nonconsensual use of a person’s image to depict “newsworthy events or matters of public interest” is protected by the statute. The court then quoted yet another case stating that this newsworthiness exception broadly covered “social trends, or any subject of public interest” and went on to observe that “public interest” and “newsworthy” have been defined in the most liberal and far reaching terms. Accordingly, the court found that Borat’s antics fit “squarely” within the newsworthiness / social commentary exception of the New York statute, stating that

[T]he movie employs as its chief medium a brand of humor that appeals to the most childish and vulgar in its viewers. As its core, however, Borat attempts an ironic commentary of ‘modern’ American culture…challeng[ing] its viewers to confront, not only the bizarre and offensive Borat character himself, but the equally bizarre and offensive reactions he elicits from ‘average’ Americans.

In a footnote, the court approvingly cited a 1970 case in pointing out that “the mere fact that defendants are spurred by the profit motive and engaged in the commercial exploitation of [a] motion picture does not negate their right to depict a matter of public interest or to advertise the picture by the showing of a ‘trailer’.”

Perhaps an open question is when, if ever, a New York news reporter or movie producer would need permission to use a non-celebrity’s image in his or her reporting, movie, or advertising, i.e., on a subject not necessarily in the public interest.

Court sides with the late James Brown in right of publicity case against Corbis

Brown v. ACMI Pop Div., — N.E.2d —-, No. 06-0870, 2007 WL 2214544 (Ill. App. Aug. 2, 2007) [Download the opinion]

The Appellate Court of Illinois recently addressed some questions arising at the sometimes murky border between copyright and the right of publicity. At issue was whether Corbis, the online stock photography company, violated the late singer James Brown’s right of publicity by offering to license the copyright in photos of him, even though he had not consented to the use by Corbis of his name or image.

Corbis moved to dismiss under 735 ILCS 5/2-619 (which is much like a motion for summary judgment), arguing that the offering of copyright licenses through the website was not an unauthorized commercial use, and therefore not a violation of Brown’s right of publicity under the Act and at common law. The court denied the motion, and Corbis sought interlocutory review with the Appellate Court. On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to dismiss.

Corbis argued that Brown’s allegations were “premised on an unprecedented legal theory that a copyright for a photograph of an individual cannot be licensed unless the publicity rights are obtained by the licensor, not the end user, without regard to the ultimate use of the photograph.” Citing to earlier Illinois cases in which the name and image of certain well-known figures had been used in novels and in news coverage, Corbis claimed that the use of the image was a “vehicle of information,” much like a news report.

Brown argued that Corbis’s use of the photos was not as a mere “vehicle of information,” but were being sold for commercial purposes, as merchandise or a good. But Corbis sought to distinguish its activity as a “service,” namely, licensing the “incorporeal image,” which is “purely intangible.” Corbis also asserted that permitting Brown to charge a fee for permission to use his image for news reporting (many of Corbis’s customers were news media outlets) would violate the First Amendment. Moreover, the Right of Publicity Act specifically exempts use of images for noncommercial purposes, such as news reporting.

In affirming the denial of the motion to dismiss, the court observed the “vast difference of opinion regarding the interpretation of the definition of what Corbis sells and the legal effect of such sales.” Accordingly, the court determined, a material and genuine disputed question of fact remained, so the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the matter was appropriate.

Publication of photo on website not a “continuing violation” in right of publicity case

This post is by Greg Smith, a contributor to Internet Cases. [Bio]

In Blair v. Nevada Landing Partnership, a casino worker sued his former employer, claiming that the casino used a photograph of him in various marketing materials and later, without authorization, on the casino’s website. Although the plaintiff consented to the photograph when it was taken, he complained about its use after he quit his job.

The plaintiff claimed that the casino misappropriated his likeness, and filed an action in Illinois state court, alleging violations of the state’s Right of Publicity Act. The trial court dismissed the action as time-barred, and the plaintiff sought review. The Appellate Court affirmed.

The court began by analyzing when the limitations began to run. Said another way, it looked to determine when the cause of action “accrued.” The photograph was taken in 1994, and about six months later, it appeared on various flyers and brochures, signs and billboards, casino restaurant menus, and calendars and postcards for sale in the casino gift shop. Some time later, the photo appeared on the casino’s website. The plaintiff did not file suit until September 2004.

The court noted that in tort cases, the limitations period begins to run when the plaintiff can first file the lawsuit. Conduct of a defendant falling under the “continuing violation” exception, however, can toll (i.e., delay) the time when the limitations period begins. If there is a continuing violation, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the tortious acts cease. But the continuing violation exception does not apply if the alleged conduct stems from a “single overt act.” In such cases, the statute begins to run on the date of the single act.

The court declined to apply to continuing violation exception:

We do not believe that the defendants’ act of publishing the plaintiff’s picture in various mediums around the casino falls under the continuing violation exception. Rather, we believe that the use of the plaintiff’s picture in different means such as on the billboard in the casino pavilion, in the casino’s restaurant menu, and on the defendants’ website, constituted a single overt act.

The court cautioned that application of this so-called “first publication rule” is not without its limitations. “[A] republication of the plaintiff’s likeness can constitute a new cause of action if the publication is altered so as to reach a new audience or promote a different product.” Lehman v. Discovery Communications, Inc., 332 F.Supp.2d 534, 539 (E.D.N.Y.2004).

But in this case, even though the casino used the plaintiff’s photograph in different formats over time, it committed only a single overt act for statute of limitations purposes. The uses were all made with the same goal, namely, to attract customers to the casino. Accordingly, a suit filed nearly a decade after the photo was first used was clearly time-barred.

Blair v. Nevada Landing Partnership, — N.E.2d —-, 2006 WL 3594284 (Ill. App. 2 Dist., December 8, 2006)

1 2