Archive for May, 2010

The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods, Sexy Einstein Edition

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

E = mc squared, baby

Thank you, Albert Einstein, for making our point.

Great minds think alike.

Unknown to The Licensing Law Blog, one day before we posted “The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods,” representatives of the estate of Albert Einstein sued General Motors Company for an advertisement featuring the head of the Father of Relativity Theory photoshopped onto the ripped, tattooed naked torso of an underwear model, with the caption, “IDEAS ARE SEXY TOO.”

The ad ran in the November 30, 2009 “Sexiest Man Alive” issue of People Magazine to promote the GMC Terrain SUV, explaining, “THAT’S WHY WE GAVE IT MORE IDEAS PER SQUARE INCH.”

GMC was sued in federal court in Los Angeles by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ), which was the beneficiary of all of Einstein’s intellectual property rights in his will, for trademark infringement and misappropriation of Einstein’s rights of publicity. (HUJ also claimed a subsidiary cause of action for unfair competition.) Einstein is the fourth highest grossing deceased celebrity property, earning about $18 million annually, according to Forbes magazine.

What makes this case interesting from a legal point of view is the rights of publicity issue as applied to dead celebrities. HUJ sued GMC under both New Jersey common law rights of publicity and California common law and statutory law rights of publicity.

New Jersey case law is clear that rights of publicity are property, and survive the death of the owner, as mentioned in the previous blog post. What is not clear is how long after death the rights survive. Einstein died in 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey. Did his rights of publicity survive 55 years after his death? The judge in the 1981 case Estate of Presley v. Russen said he had no idea what the survival period was without further guidance from the New Jersey State Legislature (which has not addressed the issue to date), although he suggested in a footnote that a good reference point might be postmortem survival periods under copyright law, which would be at least 70 years after death.

Also, there is the question whether California or New Jersey law controls. Usually (but not always) choice of law principles dictate that the law in rights of publicity cases is controlled by the state of the celebrity’s domicile at the time of death. But after cases involving Marilyn Monroe’s postmortem rights of publicity, in which courts in both New York and Los Angeles ruled in 2007 that the law of New York (Marilyn’s domicile) not California (Marilyn’s place of death) applied, California revised its rights of publicity law in an attempt to preserve postmortem rights of publicity for “personalities” regardless of date or domicile at death. In the unlikely event that this case ever reaches the decision stage, it will be interesting to see whether the court applies New Jersey or California law on rights of publicity.

By the way, no one will accuse GM of being Einsteins in the licensing field. A GM spokesperson said she believed GM had paid a “reputable organization” for rights to run the Einstein ad, but our guess is that they only paid for a copyright license for the Einstein photo, and not for rights of publicity or trademark licenses. In 2005, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also sued GM for using his image in an advertisement without a license.

P.S. In case you are wondering about the impact of GM’s bankruptcy on the Einstein lawsuit, there is none. GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 1, 2009, and sold its assets to a new entity on July 10, 2009, which then took the General Motors Company name, and left the “old GM” to settle its debts with the proceeds it received from selling its assets to the “new GM.” So the entity that published the ad at issue on November 30, 2009 was never involved in bankruptcy, therefore the HUJ lawsuit will in no way be restricted or impeded by bankruptcy law.

‘Scuse Me While I Sue This Guy: The Uncertain Law of Dead Celebrity Goods

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Jimi sez: "Businessmen they drink my...vodka?!?"

What do Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana all have in common?

If you guessed that all of them are dead celebrities, you are only half right.

More importantly, all of them were subjects of messy postmortem lawsuits against sellers of celebrity-branded goods.

Because of great variations in the laws, as well as “favorite son/daughter” influence on local courts, using the name or image of a dead celebrity to sell products without a license is risky business.

Doing so may put a businessperson in violation of two categories of legal rights, rights of publicity laws and trademark laws.

The more direct threat is the law of rights of publicity. Generally speaking, rights of publicity laws prohibit the commercial use of the name (and usually image and signature) of another person without his permission. But that is about all one can say with certainty — the laws are state-based, not federal, and beyond the basics, there are great variations in the laws of the states that recognize rights of publicity. In fact, it is not even certain how many states do recognize rights of publicity, with estimates ranging from the mid-20’s to close to 50.

One of the biggest variables among state laws is whether the right of publicity survives the celebrity’s death, and if so, for how long. States that characterize the right of publicity as a personal right naturally conclude that it is extinguished on the person’s death. New York is one such state. States that characterize the right of publicity as a property right, like New Jersey, naturally conclude that it survives the person’s death, and is descendible to her survivors.

That seems simple enough. So where is the problem?

1) Which state law decides the survivability of a dead celebrity’s right of publicity, a personal right state or a property right state? The estate of Marilyn Monroe has claimed for years that property right based rights of publicity laws in both California and Indiana gave them the right to charge royalties to would be users of Marilyn’s name or image, but they were dealt a severe surprise in 2007 when judges in both Los Angeles and New York ruled that since Marilyn was a New York domiciliary at the time of her death in California in 1962, then New York’s personal right based law controlled, and her right of publicity did not survive her death. Similarly, a Washington court ruled that the heirs of Jimi Hendrix did not inherit his rights of publicity, because Jimi was a New York domiciliary at the time of his death in England in 1970. A broad rule of thumb is that survivability is decided by the state of the celebrity’s domicile (generally the state of legal residence) at the time of the celebrity’s death. But there are many exceptions to this rule, making it risky for a celebrity-oriented business to try to guess without legal assistance. Big band singer Louis Prima died in 1978 after two years in a nursing home in Louisiana, which is a personal rights state, but nevertheless, a New Jersey federal court held that the issue of the survivability of his right of publicity was controlled by the law of New Jersey, where Prima had never lived, and allowed his widow to sue the Olive Garden restaurant chain and its advertisers for use of a Prima sound-alike singer in a television commercial.

2) Even in a property right state, it is not always clear how long after death the right survives. In a case decided four years after Elvis Presley’s 1977 death, a New Jersey court ruled that the state’s case law supported a property right based right of publicity, and ruled that a local Elvis impersonator had misappropriated the King’s right of publicity. However, the court admitted that it had no idea how long the right survived Elvis, and that the state legislature would need to clarify the issue. (It has not to date.)

In addition to rights of publicity law, trademark law may also require a seller of celebrity paraphernalia to take a license from a dead celebrity’s representatives. Here, the issue is usually not survivability after death (because trademark rights normally do survive death), but whether the celebrity’s name has in fact become a trademark — an identifier of the source or origin of goods or services — and if so, for which specific categories of goods or services.

A company called Electric Hendrix LLC (“EH”) decided that it could sell Jimi-Hendrix-branded vodka without a license from Hendrix’s estate, because courts had already decided that Jimi’s rights of publicity did not survive his death (above), and his estate had not filed trademark registrations in any category remotely related to alcoholic beverages, and in fact had vowed it would never license alcohol-related products, so there was no likelihood of consumer confusion as to the source of the vodka, or so EH thought. Nevertheless, a Washington court found that EH was liable for trademark infringement, after performing an eight factor infringement analysis, emphasizing that: (a) consumers would be likely to assume that any Hendrix-branded products came from or were authorized by the Hendrix estate; and (b) evidence of the intent of EH to free-ride on Jimi’s fame was overwhelming. The court ordered the defendants to halt all sales of EH vodka, and to remove all product from store shelves. It is possible that Jimi’s celebrity status in his hometown of Seattle was a factor in the decision.

5 Minute FAQ: Open Source Licenses

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Q: What is an open source license, and why is it important?

There are many kinds of open source licenses with a great variety of terms and conditions – Creative Commons License, GNU General Public License, Sun Community Source License, and many others. Open source licensing is becoming an increasingly important business model to distribute creative works (below). As explained in the Licensing Glossary, generally speaking an open source license is one that allows broad rights to use, modify, and distribute copyrighted material without payment of a royalty, so long as the user does not place proprietary restrictions on later users of his content. For example, the Terms of Use of popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia state that, “you can use content from Wikipedia projects freely,” as long as users make their own contributions freely available to others. In the context of software, an open source license is one that complies with the ten requirements of the Open Source Initiative, including: 1) “free” redistribution (“free” as in no downstream proprietary restrictions, and “free” as in no royalties on the original or revised code); 2) inclusion of or easy access to detailed source code; 3) the right to create and distribute modifications and derivative works; and 4) no inclusion of “downstream” license restrictions that reduce or undercut the other open source terms, i.e. once open source, always open source, no matter who adds what later on in time. Although open source software is often called “free software,” that is not quite accurate. One of the best known examples of an open source software license, the GNU General Public License, does prohibit royalties, but also permits licensors to charge a small fee for the physical act of transferring the software, as well as service fees for warranties and maintenance. In the context of licensing of text and images, the GNU Free Documentation License and various Creative Commons licenses are guided by similar open source concepts.

Q: Why would anyone just give away their creative work under an open source license?

Why indeed. The success of the open source licensing model is one of the most fascinating phenomena of the digital age. Sophisticated products with major market impact are available for free under open source licenses: the Firefox Internet browser; the Wikipedia online encyclopedia; and Apache server software. Although traditional forms of intellectual property protection are based on the assumption that the profit motive (self interest) is the greatest driver of innovation, open source licensing is based on the assumption that unrestricted sharing of knowledge and innovation (collaboration) best begets further knowledge and innovation. There is also a hybrid business model, based on the “give away the razor for free to make money selling the razor blades” concept. In some cases, for-profit businesses contribute to open source software so they can sell associated databases, or maintenance, or hardware—several distributors of the open source Linux operating system sell warranties and maintenance to go with their version of Linux, while several sellers of smartphones “give away” the open source Android software that runs them. (Smartphones running Android outsold Apple’s popular iPhone during the first quarter of 2010.)

Q: What happens if the user ignores the requirements of an open source license, for example by charging a license fee for its altered version of the open source material?

Until recently, it was not clear if there was any penalty to ignoring the requirements of an open source license. Opponents of open source licensing had previously argued that if licensors gave their product away for free, then even if licensees ignored the terms of the license, there were no damages. But in Jacobsen v. Katzer, the Court Of Appeals for the Federal Circuit put legal teeth in the open source licensing model, by ruling that violation of an open source license was not just a breach of the license, but might also be a copyright infringement. The case involved software developed by physics professor and model train enthusiast Robert Jacobsen to program decoder chips that control model trains. Jacobsen made the software available under the open source Artistic License. Matthew Katzer and Kamind Associates copied several of Jacobsen’s files into their own commercial software, but in violation of the license terms, did not include a notice of attribution to Jacobsen. While Katzer and Kamind conceded that Jacobsen’s software was copyrighted, they argued that since the Artistic License permitted them to copy the files, there was no copyright infringement, at worst only a breach of the license terms. The CAFC disagreed, ruling that since the attribution requirement was drafted as a condition under which the license was granted, copying in violation of a condition was not excused by the license, and was therefore a copyright infringement. The case is significant not only because it is the first major case validating the concept of open source licensing, but also gives open source licensors a much more effective means to enforce the license. Although contract damages are normally calculated on economic harm suffered by the injured party (and therefore difficult to prove when a product is given away for free), under copyright law, creators can collect damages and attorneys fees based on the infringer’s profit, or under a fixed formula called statutory damages. Furthermore, copyright law allows the licensor to pursue licensees of the licensee, while contract law normally does not. Thus, the Jacobsen case gives real teeth to open source licensing—however, at this time it is limited to cases under the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit. Although the Jacobsen case makes it much easier for open source licensors to get damages to enforce license terms, an important open question is how easily they can get injunctions to enforce open source license terms, for example an injunction ordering a licensee to disclose its source code to the public, or even shutting down all further distribution of the licensee’s software.

The Google Dilemma and the China Syndrome

Monday, May 3rd, 2010
Posters courtesy http://chineseposters.net, IISH, and Stefan R. Landsberger Collections

Google was the first, but it probably will not be the last.

New rules went into effect in China on May 1 that require foreign vendors of information technology devices to disclose proprietary information if they want to sell their products to the Chinese government.

Now Cisco, Symantec, and Microsoft will need to make the same difficult choice as Google did — to continue participating in and benefiting from the miraculous economic growth of the Chinese economy, or to protect their intellectual property from theft and their customers from cyber espionage by hackers based in China.

Under the regulations, vendors of secure network routers, smart cards, anti-spam software, firewall software and other products involved in protecting digital data must meet new technology standards before being certified for sale to government agencies. However, the certification testing will be performed by government-connected testing laboratories, and as part of the testing, the vendors must disclose encryption algorithms, software source code, and design specifications that, for many of the products, are regarded as sensitive trade secrets.

The Chinese government argues that the certification and testing process is necessary in order to protect the Chinese government from viruses and hackers. Officials have also previously justified the new rules on the grounds that they would assist the fledgling Chinese digital security industry. According to one Chinese official, foreign firms currently control 70% of that market in China. Chinese officials have also argued that other nations have similar disclosure and certification programs for digital security products.

But the companies and their home governments argue that disclosure of their proprietary algorithms and source code to the Chinese government, which is also trying to promote its domestic digital security industry, amounts to an unfair trade policy. A further concern (although not officially acknowledged) appears to be that possession of such information would permit Chinese government-connected hackers to gain a “pass key” to the networks of political dissidents and economic competitors. And the knowledge that the Chinese government has such a pass key would dampen purchases by other foreign governments.

The dilemma now faced by foreign digital security vendors echoes that faced by Google, which was forced to choose between access to a market of 380 million computer users, or exposing both its intellectual property and its users to cyber espionage. Google’s decision to move its offices from Beijing to Hong Kong also not coincidentally removed direct competition for Google’s domestic Chinese search engine competitor, Baidu.

The Chinese government has significantly scaled back the certification program since it was first announced. According to an article that ran in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in September, 2008, the original certification program would have required disclosure of proprietary code even for consumer goods such as flat-panel televisions, and for sales to the Chinese retail market as well as to the government. Those rules were set to go into effect in May, 2009, but after vigorous protests from foreign governments, the effective date was postponed for one year, and the scope was narrowed to only goods procured by the Chinese government.

Similarly, the Chinese government has recently deleted the most controversial provisions of another program that would have required the Chinese government to give preference to Chinese companies for purchases of all information technology products.