The right of publicity, or right to control the commercial use of one’s identity, has developed as judge-made law and in state statutes; it also figures in many other nations’ law, often under the heading of “personality rights.” Together with the convention of treating it as a form of property rather than a personal right it leads to some practically dubious consequences, discussed by guest blogger Jennifer Rothman in a series of Volokh Conspiracy posts based on a new book. Among them are legal risks for reporting on and depictions of both living and deceased persons, including biographies and discussion of public figures; proposals for transferability and alienability of the right would also mean that persons can in some circumstances lose control over their identities while alive.
Writer Faleena Hopkins recently registered a trademark in the word “cocky” in connection with her series of romance novels. Next step: cease and desist letters to other authors using the word “cocky” in their book titles. Now legal disputes (“#cockygate”) are proliferating. [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
- “Crash survivor sues publisher, claims he was exploited by book’s false claim of visit to heaven” [Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal on William Alexander “Alex” Malarkey claim against Tyndale House Publishers] More: Lowering the Bar;
- Attorney-client privilege and the raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen: my Saturday chat with Yuripzy Morgan of Baltimore’s WBAL radio [listen] On the same general subject, Clark Neily chats with Caleb Brown for the Cato Daily Podcast, and Ken at Popehat has a Stormy Daniels/Michael Cohen civil litigation lawsplainer;
- “While there were many problems with the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, one thing the Republican-led Congress got absolutely right was defunding Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” [Robert Romano, Daily Torch, earlier on AFFH]
- “The nearest Macy’s department store is several thousand miles away” but a small hair salon in Scotland will need to change its similar name or face lawyers’ wrath [Timothy Geigner, TechDirt]
- Facebook sued for allegedly allowing housing discrimination by way of ad targeting [autoplays] [Seth Fiegerman, CNN Money]
- Beverage equivalent of clear backpacks: South Carolina bill would make it a crime to let teenagers consume energy drinks [Jacob Sullum]
Recommended: Attorney Elizabeth McNamara of Davis Wright Tremaine, a law firm known for its media defense practice, wrote this three-page letter on behalf of publisher Henry Holt and author Michael Wolff responding to Donald Trump’s letter demanding that it not publish Wolff’s book Fire and Fury (“My clients do not intend to cease publication, no such retraction will occur, and no apology is warranted.”). How strong are the President’s claims based on contractual non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses? David Post has a few things to say about that [Volokh Conspiracy] As for Mr. Trump’s possible defamation claims, American courts will not ordinarily enjoin a defamatory publication unless the fact of defamation has been proven at trial, so any remedy he may have will need to be after-the-fact in any case. “The suggestion that Donald Trump would actually follow through on this latest of his many legal threats, much less win…. is the hootworthy part.” [Lowering the Bar]
Addressing a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the President once again called for changing libel laws to make it easier for plaintiffs to win, although libel is a matter of state rather than federal law [Gregory Korte and David Jackson, USA Today] Irony watch, from last month: “Trump’s statements ‘too vague, subjective, and lacking in precise meaning’ to be libelous,” in suit by political strategist who was the target of future President’s tweets in February 2016 [Eugene Volokh] “Trump has been filing and threatening lawsuits to shut up critics and adversaries over the whole course of his career,” I noted in this space last year. “Mr. Trump’s supporters should also keep in mind that one day they too will want to criticize a public official without being punished for doing so.” [John Samples, Cato]
Allen & Unwin, the publisher, says it does not plan to publish a book by Charles Sturt University academic Clive Hamilton called Silent Invasion, on the influence of the Chinese government in high places in Australia. Hamilton says the publisher has privately communicated to him that it is afraid of facing defamation lawsuits should it go forward. [Andrew Greene, Australian Broadcasting Corporation]
Legally penalizing the circulation of “fake news,” misinformation and faulty rumor, newly popular in Europe especially as regards social media, is not a new idea at all. It’s a very old one, which again and again results in governments’ enshrining their particular version of orthodoxy as truth [Jacob Mchangama, Quillette]
Author signings are an important source of traffic for many small community bookstores, but the new California law discussed in this space last year could make them impractical. The bill requires that retailers provide witnessed certificates of authenticity for signed items of value, which must record extensive information on matters such as the size of the edition and price paid, all on pain of steep penalties. They must also retain the resulting paperwork for seven years and will be subject to bounty-hunting suits by “private attorney general” attorneys. The bill’s sponsor apparently did not realize it would apply to signed books. Now Pacific Legal Foundation is challenging the statute in a lawsuit on behalf of San Francisco’s Book Passage store, co-owned by lawyer Bill Petrocelli. [Anastasia Boden, PLF Blog]
Extending to collectibles generally a law that had applied to autographed sports memorabilia, California law will now require dealers of signed items priced above $5 to provide a certificate of authenticity on pain of severe legal penalties. The certificate, which must be retained by the seller for seven years, must include sensitive information such as the name and street address of the former owner. One of many big problems with that: it could halt the sale of countless old books signed by their authors or former owners. One force behind passage of the law: celebrity Mark Hamill had expressed frustration over trade in items allegedly signed by him. The bill’s sponsor says she did not intend it to apply to booksellers, but the language of the statute affords them no exclusion. [LitHub, earlier]
Faced with a $140 million verdict from a Florida jury over its publication of a sex tape including wrestler Hulk Hogan, Gawker Media has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy [CNN Money] Forbes profiles a boutique law firm that with Thiel’s help has made suing Gawker its “bread and butter.” Nick Lemann notes that the “uniquely legally privileged position of the American press” dates back to the period of New York Times v. Sullivan and some other pro-press decisions, and may be up for rethinking in public opinion “at a moment when the press is far more vulnerable, economically and culturally, than it used to be.” [New Yorker] My recent posts on Gawker, Peter Thiel, and paying others to sue are here, here, and here.
There has been much coverage of the revelation that Peter Thiel has funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker behind the scenes, especially following the Silicon Valley figure’s acknowledgment that he views taking down the notoriously scurrilous publisher as a public service (“one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”) and has sought out and funded other litigants besides Hogan in order to make that happen. As I said in my explainer the other day, the decay of age-old rules against outsider funding of litigation (“champerty and maintenance”) is a broader trend that has left many sectors of society more exposed to the dangers of litigation, with the press just the latest.
I’m quoted by Alison Frankel in her Reuters column on this (“Our ancestors were not complete fools,” I say) and by Timothy Lee at Vox (“‘Some people following the Thiel story appear to be surprised that these weapons can be used by rich and powerful people in order to get their way,’ Olson tells me.”; also see Ezra Klein’s piece). And Lee recounts a recent episode that passed with little notice at the time:
Last year, the liberal magazine Mother Jones defeated a defamation lawsuit filed by Republican donor Frank VanderSloot. Winning the lawsuit cost Mother Jones, a relatively small nonprofit organization, and its insurance company $2.5 million in legal fees.
If VanderSloot’s goal was to punish Mother Jones for writing an accurate but unflattering story about him, a loss was almost as good as a victory. His lawsuit sought $74,999 (staying just under the $75,000 threshold that would have allowed Mother Jones to move the case to federal court and away from an Idaho jury that might have favored the hometown plaintiff). So “winning” the lawsuit cost Mother Jones 30 times as much as the amount it would have had to pay if it had lost.
What was really ominous was what happened after VanderSloot’s loss. He “announced that he was setting up a $1 million fund to pay the legal expenses of people wanting to sue Mother Jones or other members of the ‘liberal press.'”
Of journalists raising the alarm about the Thiel episode, Josh Marshall notes that unlike the usual pattern of litigation by wealthy persons against the press, in which the plaintiff must undertake some risk of reciprocal damage through discovery and bad headlines, the Thiel model allows the one in the background with the grudge to inflict hurt at little risk except financial to himself. “If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization,” argues Felix Salmon.
Meanwhile, some other writers echo the point I made about how, once funding other people’s lawsuits for ideological reasons came to be applauded as public interest law, it was unlikely that the weapon would not be used against the full range of targets including the press. Tyler Cowen tries putting the shoe on the environmentalist foot, while Eugene Kontorovich at the Volokh Conspiracy observes that “Thiel’s conduct fits into the ‘public interest’ or ‘ideological’ litigation paradigm” and claims that “By current standards, Thiel’s funding should raise no eyebrows — unless one also wants to revisit public interest litigation, class actions and contingent fees.”
You know what? Maybe it’s time we did revisit those things, including the ideological litigation paradigm. And Andrew Grossman has a tweetstorm and exchange with Kontorovich that comes closer to capturing my own mix of feelings on the subject.