Thursday, February 13, 2014

@JamesDean:Twitter Tags and the Personality Rights of Dead Celebrities

James Dean isn’t exactly a celebrity that you’d expect to find actively tweeting. CMG Worldwide, which handles the commercial estates of a number of dead celebrities that include Dean's estate, has filed a lawsuit against the social networking giant over the @JamesDean Twitter account to prevent this from occurring.

The issue started over an anonymous individual who registered the @JamesDean username. CMG Worldwide requested Twitter to remove it. Twitter refused to do so.

The legal battle over the @JamesDean username is unique. Twitter has an Impersonation Policy and a Trademark Policy in place. The trade mark policy forbids the use of “a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation”. The impersonation policy forbids users from registering usernames meant to portray another person in a confusing or deceptive manner. The only exceptions outlined in their policies are those that are parodies, commentary, and fan accounts (the owner must publicly specify the accounts as such, and the account itself must comply with the trade mark policy.)

CMG Worldwide asserts that the @JamesDean account is in violation of Twitter’s own policies, as it does not publicly disclose that it isn’t officially sanctioned, and isn’t meant to be a parody, giving the impression that it is an official account that represents the Dean estate. So far, Twitter has not taken any action against the @JamesDean account, which currently has around 8 thousand followers.

The case was brought to Indiana, which expressly allows divestiture of celebrity rights by estate - which is why no doubt CMG, with its business of commercialising the estates of the dead and famous, is located there. (Tennessee courts have also been willing to allow this, notably in relation to Elvis Presley's estate. One of the few places outside of the US that also allows this is Jamaica. In The Robert Marley Foundation v Dino Michelle Limited the court was willing to intervene to prevent reproduction of the singer's face, notwithstanding the fact that Marley died in 1981 and the case was brought in 1994.) Twitter has applied to move the case to the federal jurisdiction.

Twitter has not released any public statements over the matter, but CMG states that the social network has already answered in their communications that they find no reason to believe that the account is in violation of their trade mark policy. Twitter has also stated that it "strongly contests liability and does not believe Plaintiff is entitled to any relief whatsoever."

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