Court denies request of plaintiffs in right of publicity suit to exhume the body of Aunt Jemima

The great-grandsons of Anna S. Harringon, whose image formed the basis for Aunt Jemima, sued Quaker Oats Company and others for $2 billion claiming that defendants failed to pay royalties to Harrington’s estate after her death in 1955. One of the allegations in the case is that defendants played a role in Harrington’s death. Apparently, in an effort to support those allegations, plaintiffs sought an order from the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (where the matter is pending) allowing them to exhume the body of their great-grandmother for evidence of this malfeasance.

The court denied the request. Apart from it being just a bizarre ask, it turns out the “evidence” upon which the defendants’ role in Aunt Jemima’s death was based on a parody article from Uncyclopedia. In denying the motion, the court found the following:

The motion is primarily based on statements purportedly made by Quaker Oats executives about the death of the woman who had been identified as “Aunt Jemima.” But the source of the information is an uncyclopedia.wikia.com article, which is a parody website of Wikipedia. Uncyclopedia proudly bills itself as “an encyclopedia full of misinformation and utter lies.” See uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Uncyclopedia:About.

The court also threatened the pro se plaintiffs: “Plaintiffs must take greater care in their submissions to the Court, or else face sanctions and, if litigation abuse continues, outright dismissal of the case.”

Hunter et al. v. PepsiCo Inc. et al., No. 1:14-cv-06011 (N.D. Ill. October 21, 2014)

BTW: Some info about Anna Harrington’s grave.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

Hulk Hogan sex tape redux: Another court holds Gawker had First Amendment right to publish video excerpts

As we discussed here on internetcases back in November 2012, someone surreptitiously filmed Hulk Hogan engaged in sex acts with someone other than his wife. When Gawker posted an article and video excerpts about that, Hulk sued in federal court for invasion of privacy. The federal court denied the preliminary injunction, holding that to bar Gawker from publishing the information would be an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

hulk_hogan_tapeA few weeks after the federal court denied his motion for preliminary injunction, Hulk voluntarily dismissed the federal case and filed a new case in state court. Unlike the federal court, the state court granted a preliminary injunction against Gawker publishing the information and the video excerpts. Gawker sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s order granting the preliminary injunction.

The state appellate court’s decision closely tracked the federal court’s reasoning from 2012. The court observed that where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous. But speech on matters of public concern is “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.”

The court found that the sex tape excerpts and information that Gawker published were matters of public concern. Much of this was from Hulk’s own doing — he injected himself into the public spotlight not only as a professional wrestler, but also through books detailing his sexual indiscretions, radio interviews, and other public pronouncements about his “conquests.”

In arguing that Gawker’s speech was not of public concern, Hulk looked to Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group, Inc., 5 F.Supp.2d 823 (C.D.Cal.1998), a case that dealt with the infamous sex tape that Bret Michaels and Pamela Anderson made. In that case, the court found defendant’s redistribution of the video was not protected by the First Amendment, in part because the distribution was purely commercial. The court didn’t buy it.

But wasn’t Gawker’s use commercial as well? The court drew a distinction:

We are aware that Gawker Media is likely to profit indirectly from publishing the report with video excerpts to the extent that it increases traffic to Gawker Media’s website. However, this is distinguishable from selling the [Hulk] Sex Tape purely for commercial purposes.

So the court found that despite his brawn, Hulk failed to carry his “heavy burden” of overcoming the presumption that a preliminary injunction would violate the First Amendment in this situation.

Gawker Media, LLC v. Bollea, 2014 WL 185217 (Fla.App. 2 Dist., January 17, 2014)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses and individuals identify and manage issues dealing with technology development, copyright, trademarks, software licensing and many other matters involving the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.

Court slaps Prenda client with more than $20,000 in defendant’s costs and attorney’s fees

AF Holdings, represented by infamous copyright trolls Prenda Law, voluntarily withdrew its copyright infringement claims against the defendant, an alleged BitTorrent infringer. Defendant sought to recover his costs and attorney’s fees pursuant to the Copyright Act, which provides that:

In any civil action under this title, the court in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs by or against any party other than the United States or an officer thereof. Except as otherwise provided by this title, the court may also award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs.

The court found that all factors for an award of costs and attorney’s fees weighed in defendant’s favor:

  • Degree of success: There was no dispute that defendant completely prevailed in the case.
  • Frivolousness/Objective Unreasonableness: Plaintiff’s case was frivolous and objectively unreasonable in that it never presented any evidence (although it had the opportunity to do so) to support its claim that it had standing to assert a claim for copyright infringement. Moreover, the court found that plaintiff did not do a proper investigation to determine defendant was the one in the household who committed the alleged infringement. Instead, it simply alleged that he fit the best demographic of one who would infringe.
  • Motivation: The court found that it did not appear plaintiff was motivated to protect the copyright at issue, but merely to coerce settlements.
  • Compensation/Deterrence: The court awarded fees as a deterrent to copyright trolls everywhere: other persons or entities that might contemplate a similar business model that is not intended to protect copyrighted work but instead designed to generate revenues through suits and coerced settlements.
  • Furthering the Purpose of the Copyright Act: The primary objective of the Copyright Act is to encourage the production of original literary, artistic, and musical expression for the good of the public. But here, the court found, plaintiff had not acted to protect original expression but rather to capitalize on coerced settlements.

Based on these factors, and after considering the number of hours spent and the hourly rate of defendant’s counsel, the court ordered plaintiff to pay $19,420.38 in attorney’s fees and $3,111.55 in costs (mainly for electronic discovery and deposition costs). Copyright trolls be warned.

AF Holdings LLC v. Navasca
, 2013 WL 3815677 (N.D.Cal. July 22, 2013)

Ninth Circuit affirms that Righthaven had no standing to sue as a copyright owner

Righthaven LLC v. Hoehn, No. 22-16751 (9th Cir. May 9, 2013)

The copyright holder in certain newspaper articles granted to Righthaven the awkwardly-articulated rights “requisite to have Righthaven recognized as the copyright owner of the [articles] for purposes of Righthaven being able to claim ownership as well as the right to seek redress for past, present, and future infringements of the copyright . . . in and to the [articles].”

After the district court dismissed some of Righthaven’s cases for lack of standing, saying that Righthaven was not an owner of an “exclusive right” as required by the Copyright Act to maintain the suit, Righthaven sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s holding that Righthaven lacked standing.

The court found that the language used to grant rights to Righthaven did not in itself prove that Righthaven owned any exclusive rights. It held that the language in an assignment agreement purporting to transfer ownership is not conclusive. Instead, a court must consider the “substance of the transaction.” Since a separate agreement between Righthaven and the copyright holder placed limits on what Righthaven could do with any copyright assigned to it, Righthaven did not actually possess the required exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, and therefore lacked standing to sue.

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