When the Test is a Fail

The Second Circuit recently issued a(nother) decision in the dispute between bridalwear designer Hayley Paige Gutman and her former employer, JLM Couture, Inc. over ownership of Instagram and Pinterest accounts Gutman created while employed by JLM. You can find background on this case here

The Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s 2022 decision, which held JLM owned the accounts. More notably, the Second Circuit rejected the lower court’s six factor test considering how the account describes itself; whether the account was promoted on the employer entity’s advertisements or publicity materials and linked to other internet platforms of the entity; whether it promoted the business; and whether employees of the entity (other than the account creator) had access to and managed the account. 

In reversing the lower court, the Second Circuit held social media accounts “should be treated in the first instance like any other form of property,” and, in figuring out who currently owns one, courts should look to who owned it when it was created and whether there is any evidence the account was ever transferred to someone else. “[T]he law has long accommodated new technologies within existing legal frameworks,” the Circuit wrote. Translation: “Enough with the new tests already. We have plenty.” 

Overall, the Second Circuit’s conclusion lines up with what I suggested in a New York Law Journal article last month: Who Owns a Social Media Account? It’s Pretty Simple, Really. The article is paywalled, but the gist is this: Courts should stop coming up with new tests to determine whether a social media account belongs to a business or an individual associated with the business and, instead, look to existing and well-established legal frameworks to determine ownership. 

Hopefully, this is what will happen when the District Court takes up Gutman’s case again. Here, the Second Circuit sent the case back to the lower court with a note that the ownership of the social accounts may turn, at least in part, on the terms of service of the relevant social media platforms and, specifically, does “ownership” of a social media account include the right to transfer the account to another. The Second Circuit also suggested that the District Court might want to separate the ownership of content posted on the accounts from the ownership of the accounts themselves, noting that rights to the accounts and rights to the accounts’ content may or may not be the same.   

And on it goes. I’ll be paying particular attention to what the District Court says about the role of the terms of service for social media accounts. As we all know, social media companies change their terms of service — a lot. Does this approach give an outsized role to the terms of service even though the litigants in cases over ownership of social media accounts have no input into the terms of those agreements? Second, how will courts factor in changes to terms of service that parties may or may not be aware of, particularly as at least one of the parties to a dispute over ownership of a social media account probably never agreed to the terms of service? I suspect these issues will mean the District Court downplays the significance of the terms of service and instead looks at doctrines governing the ownership of other intangible property. Because tests that are well established… tend not to fail.

Grow Yourself, Grow Your Business

I started my law firm in February 2017. As I approach that anniversary again, I have some reflections on the lessons I’ve learned over the past seven years. 

First, some background. Early in my career, I worked at two large NYC firms (i.e. BigLaw). My experience at those firms is a story for another day, but if you want an idea what that life is like, others have a more recent tale to tell. 

After leaving BigLaw, I spent more than 10 years at a litigation boutique. My colleagues were incredibly good to me over that decade, teaching me a lot about how to be an effective lawyer. They supported me when I needed to get my feet underneath me after the death of both of my parents, and then when I got married and had a baby. But I reached a point where not only had I learned everything they had to teach me, I knew that I needed and wanted something else for my next chapter. I spent about a year figuring out what I wanted to do (while still working full time) and, ultimately, decided I couldn’t see myself working for someone else anymore. Also, having worked for people who had started their own law firms, I figured it couldn’t be that hard. 

To a certain extent, I was right. It wasn’t that hard. However, in some ways, I was really, really wrong. I hadn’t fully anticipated the amount of reflection and introspection required to not just build something, but to build something that works for me and my clients. I believe the lessons I learned are worth sharing because they apply not only in the context of a small law firm, but to anyone trying to develop a client base. 

First, I am not for every client, and not every client is for me. This has probably been the hardest thing for me to learn and an area where I’ve repeatedly failed to take my own advice, although I keep trying. I’ve slowly learned to interview potential clients so I can decide if they’re people I want to work with and, most importantly, to say no to those I think aren’t going to align with how I work and what my firm is about. 

Why does this matter so much? Working with clients who aren’t a good fit can feel like a chore. It’s a drain on my time and energy and, I suspect that no matter how hard I try, these clients are going to be disappointed with my work. It’s not a formula for success, especially considering I get about 99 percent of my business from referrals. I know there will be attorneys better suited for the people I turn down, and I do my best to help those potential clients find them. 

Of course, no one can always pick and choose clients. Like everyone else, I need to make a living. But screening clients carefully is critical regardless of your field, and this holds particularly true for what I do — commercial litigation. I frequently have adversaries who think that the best way to litigate is to be incredibly unpleasant (generally, it’s not, but that’s a subject for another post), and I don’t need to deal with this and a difficult relationship with a client at the same time, especially when a part of my job is sometimes to deliver bad news to the people I represent. Of course, this isn’t to say that my relationships with clients are all sunshine and flowers and unicorns who poop rainbows. The nature of the litigation beast is that sometimes things are going to get tense. All part of the job. However, focusing on working with simpatico clients is a north star that has been incredibly helpful, and has gotten me to a place where I work more and more with people I respect and trust — and who respect and trust me. 

A second key lesson I’ve learned is to make time for the uncomfortable and the unpleasant. In my experience, to run a successful business you’re going to have to do some things that are difficult or you don’t enjoy. For a long time, what I hated more than anything was marketing myself. I felt I had no idea what I was doing and I was really afraid that someone out there on the Internet was going to criticize my marketing efforts. As I look back, I realize this self-doubt was something I picked up at one of the firms I worked at previously, but that too is a story for another day. 

Because of this, for the longest time I would start every day intending to write a blog post, a newsletter, or something for LinkedIn, but because I found this marketing work so uncomfortable it was all too easy to push it aside in favor of other, less unpleasant or less scary things. Then, when I blew it off I would get frustrated with myself and feel bad about not doing the work. Suffice it to say, this was a pretty awful spiral that I do not recommend. 

My solution began with recognizing the pattern, then blocking out an hour in the middle of each day to devote to growing my firm (I’m writing this during this time). Do I use this hour wisely and productively every day? Of course not. But do I use it wisely and productively more often than not? Yes. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of feeling uncomfortable doing things to market my firm — I still am — but it does make sure I don’t avoid it. 

Stay tuned for more and let me know if there are any business development topics you’d like to see me talk about. I know we can all benefit from an exchange of ideas. 

 

Sign of the Times: The Battle Against AI Goes Big

I closed out 2023 by writing about one lawsuit over AI and copyright and we’re starting 2024 the same way. In that last post, I focused on some of the issues I expect to come up this year in lawsuits against generative AI companies, as exemplified in a suit filed by the Authors Guild and some prominent novelists against OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT). Now, the New York Times Company has joined the fray, filing suit late in December against Microsoft and several OpenAI affiliates. It’s a big milestone: The Times Company is the first major U.S. media organization to sue these tech behemoths for copyright infringement. 

As always, at the heart of the matter is how AI works: Companies like OpenAI ingest existing text databases, which are often copyrighted, and write algorithms (called large language models, or LLMs) that detect patterns in the material so that they can then imitate it to create new content in response to user prompts.

The Times Company’s complaint, which was filed in the Southern District of New York on December 27, 2023, alleges that by using New York Times content to train its algorithms, the defendants directly infringed on the New York Times’ copyright. It further alleges that the defendants engaged in contributory copyright infringement and that Microsoft engaged in vicarious copyright infringement. (In short, contributory copyright infringement is when a defendant was aware of infringing activity and induced or contributed to that activity; vicarious copyright infringement is when a defendant could have prevented — but didn’t — a direct infringer from acting, and financially benefits from the infringing activity.) Finally, the complaint alleges that the defendants violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by removing copyright management information included in the New York Times’ materials, and accuses the defendants of engaging in unfair competition and trademark dilution. 

The defendants, as always, are expected to claim they’re protected under “fair use” because their unlicensed use of copyrighted content to train their algorithms is transformative. 

What all this means is that while 2023 was the year that generative AI exploded into the public’s consciousness, 2024 (and beyond) will be when we find out what federal courts think of the underlying processes fueling this latest data revolution.

I’ve read the New York Times’ complaint (so you don’t have to) and here are some takeaways:

  • The Times Company tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate with OpenAI and Microsoft (a major investor in OpenAI) but were unable to reach an agreement that would “ensure [The Times] received fair value for the use of its content.” This likely hurts the defendants’ claims of fair use. 
  • As in the other lawsuits against OpenAI and similar companies, there’s an input problem and an output problem. The input problem comes from the AI companies ingesting huge amounts of copyrighted data from the web. The output problem comes from the algorithms trained on the data spitting out material that is identical (or nearly identical) to what they ingested. In these situations, I think it’s going to be rough going for the AI companies’ fair use claim. However, they have a better fair use argument where the AI models create content “in the style of” something else.
  • The Times Company’s case against Microsoft comes, in part, from the fact that Microsoft is alleged to have “created and operated bespoke computing systems to execute the mass copyright infringement . . .” described in the complaint.
  • OpenAI allegedly favored “high-quality content, including content from the Times” in training its LLMs.
  • When prompted, ChatGPT can regurgitate large portions of the Times’ journalism nearly verbatim. Here’s an example taken from the complaint showing the output of ChatGPT on the left in response to “minimal prompting,” and the original piece from the New York Times on the right. (The differences are in black.)

Excerpt from The New York Times Company's Complaint

  • According to the New York Times this content, easily accessible for free through OpenAI, would normally only be available behind their paywall. The complaint also contains similar examples from Bing Chat (a Microsoft product) that go far beyond what you would get in a normal search using Bing. (In response, OpenAI says that this kind of wholesale reproduction is rare and is prohibited by its terms of service. I presume that OpenAI has since fixed this issue, but that doesn’t absolve OpenAI of liability.)
  • Because OpenAI keeps the design and training of its GPT algorithms secret, the confidentiality order here will be intense because of the secrecy around how OpenAI created its LLMs.
  • While the New York Times Company can afford to fight this battle, many smaller news organizations lack the resources to do the same. In the complaint, the Times Company warns of the potential harm to society of AI-generated “news,” including its devastating effect on local journalism which, if the past is any indication, will be bad for all of us

Stay tuned. OpenAI and Microsoft should file their response, which I expect will be a motion to dismiss, in late-February or so. When I get those, I’ll see you back here.

Big Name Authors Battle the Bots

This year has brought us some of the early rounds of the fights between creators and AI companies, notably Microsoft, Meta, and OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT). In addition to the Hollywood strikes, we’ve also seen several lawsuits between copyright owners and companies developing AI products. The claims largely focus on the AI companies’ creation of “large language models” or “LLMs.” (By way of background, LLMs are algorithms that take a large amount of information and use it to detect patterns so that it can create its own “original” content in response to user prompts.) 

Among these cases is one filed by the Authors Guild and several prominent writers (including Jonathan Franzen and Jodi Picoult) in the Southern District of New York. It alleges OpenAI ingested large databases of copyrighted materials, including the plaintiffs’ works, to train their algorithms. In early December, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to add Microsoft as a defendant alleging that Microsoft knew about and assisted OpenAI in its infringement of the plaintiffs’ copyrights.

Because it is the end of the year, here are five “things to look for in 2024” in this case (and others like it): 

  1. What will defendants argue on fair use and how will the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Goldsmith impact this argument? (In 2023 the SCOTUS ruled that Andy Warhol’s manipulation of a photograph by Lynn Goldsmith was not transformative enough to qualify as fair use.)
  2. Does the fact that the output of platforms like ChatGPT isn’t copyrightable have any impact on the fair use analysis? The whole idea behind fair use is to encourage subsequent creators to build on the work of earlier creators, but what happens to this analysis when the later “creator” is merely a computer doing what it was programmed to do? 
  3. Will the fact that OpenAI recently inked a deal with Axel Springer (publisher of Politico and Business Insider) to allow OpenAI to summarize its news articles as well as use its content as training data for OpenAI’s large language models affect OpenAI’s fair use argument?
  4. What impact, if any, will this and other similar cases have on the business model for AI? Big companies and venture capital firms have invested heavily in AI, but if courts rule they must pay authors and other creators for their copyrighted works it dramatically changes the profitability of this model. Naturally, tech companies are putting forth numerous arguments against payment, including how little each individual creator would get considering how large the total pool of creators is, how it would curb innovation, etc. (One I find compelling is the idea that training a machine on copyrighted text is no different from a human reading a bunch of books and then using the knowledge and sense of style gained to go out and write one of their own.)
  5. Is Microsoft, which sells (copyrighted) software, ok with a competitor training its platform on copyrighted materials? I’m guessing that’s probably not ok.

These are all big questions with a lot at stake. For good and for ill, we live in exciting times, and in the arena of copyright and IP law I guarantee that 2024 will be an exciting year. See you then!

Barbie May Be Cool, But BRBY isn’t KÜHL

The web is rife with information and advice on how to register a trademark and, more importantly, how to protect one once you’ve got it. Much of the latter boils down to policing your mark by sending cease and desist letters whenever you suspect someone is infringing it. Good advice and, in many cases, all you need to ward off an infringer or potential infringer. But cease and desist letters aren’t always enough. Two recent cases highlight different routes that businesses traveled to protect their marks, one wrapping up quickly while the other dragged on for six years of litigation, with opposite results.

The rapid resolution came in a proceeding Mattel, Inc. brought this summer against Burberry Ltd. For anyone who has been living under a rock, Mattel makes Barbie — the dolls, the movie, the inescapable cultural “phenomenon.” The toy company brought an action before the United States Patent and Trademark Office to prevent fashion house Burberry — perhaps best known for its famous plaid-lined trenchcoats — from registering the mark “BRBY.”

Mattel claimed BRBY was likely to cause confusion because it is “visually similar” to Barbie and, “when spoken aloud, the marks are phonetically identical.” What’s more, according to Mattel, the likelihood of confusion was increased because many products sold by Mattel bearing the Barbie trademark overlap with the types of goods that Burberry was proposing to make with the BRBY mark, such as clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics. As the action stated, “[c]onsumers would be likely to wonder if, or assume that, [Burburry’s goods] are licensed by or affiliated with [Mattel].”

It’s impossible to tell exactly what went down in the proceeding because the parties reached an undisclosed settlement. However, Burberry subsequently withdrew its application to register the BRBY mark so I think we can take it as game over — in just under four months. If you ask me, it seems unlikely that anyone was going to get confused between Barbie and BRBY even though the vowelless mark could be pronounced in the same way. But clearly, Burberry figured the value of the BRBY mark wasn’t enough to justify protracted litigation.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have a federal litigation between Alfwear, Inc. and Mast-Jaegermeister US, Inc. (“MJUS”), initially filed in August 2017 and, after six years in the courts, concluded this September with the 10th Circuit Court of appeals affirming the lower court’s grant of MJUS’ motion for summary judgment.

Alfwear is a Salt Lake City company that makes outdoor apparel and gear under the brand name “KÜHL” (yes, it’s German for “cool”) and has registered trademarks for this brand name. MJUS is the US-based distribution arm of the German company that makes a herbal liqueur under the brand name — you guessed it — Jägermeister, which had a fairly repulsive shot of popularity in the mid-aughts as the drink of choice for frat parties.

As stated in the 10th Circuit’s decision, in 2016 MJUS “launched an advertising campaign to distance itself from its association with ‘pukey frat guys’ and spring break parties and remake the Jägermeister image as a ‘more premium’ brand and emphasize its German heritage.” Mast-Jaegermeister’s campaign did this by incorporating German words such as “kühl” “perfekt,” “and “dekadent ” into phrases such as “Drink it ice kühl” and “Be kühl — throw it back.” These phrases, which were intended to be easily understood by English speakers, were consistently accompanied by the Jägermeister mark.

In August 2017, Alfwear filed suit against MJUS, asserting that MJUS’s unauthorized use of the term “kühl” in connection with the advertising of MJUS’s goods or services infringed Alfwear’s registered trademarks and constituted federal and common law unfair competition. The district court held that MJUS’s use of “kühl” did not infringe on Alfwear’s “KÜHL” trademark, which it uses on its line of outdoor products, “because no reasonable juror could find a likelihood of confusion between the parties’ marks.” Yet Alfwear, refusing to back off, appealed and the case trundled on.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court, agreeing that MJUS’s use of “kühl” was unlikely to cause any consumer confusion and noting that MJUS had never put the word “kühl” on a Jagermeister bottle or any promotional clothing, and that Alfwear and MJUS’s products generally occupied distinct markets. (It is, however, worth mentioning that Alfwear has a pending trademark application for “KÜHL” in connection with wine, which presumably suggests that Alfwear is contemplating entering a market closer to that in which MJUS sells its products.)

So why did Mattel triumph in a matter of months while Alfwear fought MJUS for six years and, ultimately, lost? Was Mattel’s case really that much stronger than the one brought by the maker of KÜHL? Well, one key distinction is that there is overlap between Mattel’s Barbie-branded products and what Burberry sells, whereas there is no current overlap between KÜHL and Jägermeister. Knowing this, should Alfwear have realized it had a weaker case than Mattel and backed off earlier or not filed suit at all?

I think not. It isn’t always easy to accurately predict whether you’ll win or lose a trademark dispute because there are so many variables. Is your adversary going to be reasonable (like Burberry) or stand firm (MJUS)? How much time and effort have you and your adversary invested? Do you know all of your adversary’s motivations?
With that said, despite the risks, protecting a mark through litigation is a critical part of maintaining a mark and its value. Each time you don’t defend your mark, it potentially weakens your rights to it in the future. This is cumulative and can make it possible for others to obtain similar marks for their products. Moreover, even a loss might have a silver lining. It can aid in future decision-making when considering expansion into new markets.

Can NO FAKES be for Real?

This week, I’m taking a break from talking about court cases and instead focusing on a draft bill aimed at creating a federal right of publicity that was introduced in October by a bipartisan group of Senators. A quick refresher: the right of publicity allows an individual to control the use of their voice, and laws or cases governing this right exist in about two-thirds of the states.  

Now, with generative AI and “deepfake” technology, celebrities and entertainment companies are pushing for greater protection against the creation of unauthorized digital replicas of a person’s image, voice, or visual likeness. And the Senate, it appears, is responding, raising concerns among digital rights groups and others about First Amendment rights and limits on creative freedom. 

Before diving into the specifics of the bill and its potential implications, I want to step back and talk about the underlying reasons for intellectual property laws. These laws are the subject of entire law school classes (I took several of them), but I can quickly summarize two fundamental reasons why they exist. The first is to encourage artistic works and inventions, an idea that can be found in the U.S. Constitution. The idea is that allowing creators (in the case of copyright law) and inventors (in the case of patent law) to exclusively reap the economic benefits of their work will incentivize people to make art and invent useful things. Notably, both copyrights and patents are in effect for a limited amount of time: for patents, 20 years from the date of the application, while copyrights run for the life of the creator plus 70 years (note that length; it’s going to come up again). 

The second reason is to prevent consumer confusion. This is the central concern of trademark and unfair competition laws, which are intended to ensure that no one other than the company associated with a particular good or service is selling that good or service. 

The idea behind the right of publicity (you can read more about it in the context of generative AI here), includes a dash of both of these rationales. It ensures that individuals can profit from their investment in their persona by preventing others from using their name, likeness, voice, etc., without their permission. It also prevents brands from claiming someone endorsed a product without that person’s consent. 

With generative AI and the ease with which anyone can now create a digital replica of a celebrity to endorse a product or perform a song, artists and entertainment companies are worried that the current patchwork of state laws isn’t enough. Hence, the Nurture Originals, Foster Art, and Keep Entertainment Safe Act of 2023 or the NO FAKES Act of 2023, which, if enacted, would create a federal right of publicity. (A side question: in hiring staff, do Members of Congress test job applicants’ ability to come up with wacky bill titles that can be made into acronyms? Because this one certainly took some legitimate skill.) 

The bill protects against the creation of an unauthorized “digital replica,” which the NO FAKES Act describes as:  “a newly created, computer-generated, electronic representation of the image, voice, or visual likeness of an individual that is [nearly indistinguishable] from the actual image, voice, or visual likeness of an individual; and is fixed in a sound recording or an audiovisual work in which that individual did not actually perform or appear.”

In other words, NO FAKES bars using a computer to create an audiovisual work or a recording that looks or sounds very much like a real person when that person has not consented. This proposed right bars the creation of a digital replica during a person’s lifetime and for 70 years after death (the same as existing copyright laws). In the case of a dead person, the person or entity that owns the rights to the deceased’s publicity rights (often, the deceased’s heirs) would have to consent to the creation of a digital replica. 

If NO FAKES is passed, anyone who creates an unauthorized digital replica can be sued by the person who controls the rights; the rights holder can also sue anyone, like a website or streaming platform, who knowingly publishes, distributes, or transmits a digital replica without consent. This is true even if the work includes a disclaimer stating the work is unauthorized. 

That said, the Act as currently drafted does include some exceptions intended to protect the First Amendment. For example, NO FAKES states that it is not a violation of the Act to create a digital replica that is used as part of a news broadcast or documentary or for purposes of “comment criticism, scholarship, satire, or parody.”

Some other things to note: 

  • The right to control the creation of a digital replica does not extend to images that are unaccompanied by audio.
  • The draft bill states that the right to control digital replicas “shall be considered to be a law pertaining to intellectual property for the purposes of section 230(e)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934. This means that Internet service providers cannot rely on Section 230 to avoid liability.

Now, it is likely the draft will have undergone significant amendments and revisions if and when it is passed. As mentioned above, digital rights groups and others worry that the right of publicity can be used to litigate against speech protected by the First Amendment, as public figures in the past have tried when they don’t like something that has been said about them in the media. 

To me, the Act seems a bit suspicious. You may notice I’ve stressed how the Act extends protection against digital replicas to 70 years post-mortem, the same exact length as copyright protection. Isn’t this expansiveness a bit much considering the current state of play is no federal right of publicity at all? The extreme length of the proposed protection, coupled with the Act eliminating the use of disclaimers as a shield for liability, suggests NO FAKES is less about protecting the public and more designed to prolong celebrities’ and entertainment companies’ abilities to profit. After all, the right to publicity created in the NO FAKES Act can be sold by an actor or their heirs to a company like, say, a movie studio… that could then, in theory, continue to feature digital replicas of the aged or deceased actor in their films unchallenged for seven decades after death. Thelma and Louise 4: Back From the Abyss is coming, and Brad Pitt won’t look a day over 30. 

Good, perhaps, for Brad Pitt.  The rest of us, maybe not.  

Does Machine Learning Violate Human Copyright?

On October 30, 2023, a judge in the Northern District of California ruled in one of the first lawsuits between artists and generative AI art platforms for copyright infringement. While the judge quickly dismissed some of the Plaintiffs’ claims, the case is still very much alive as he is allowing them to address some of the problems in their case and file amended complaints. 

So what’s it all about? Three artists are suing Stability AI Ltd. and Stability AI, Inc. (collectively, “Stability”), whose platform, Stable Diffusion, generates photorealistic images from text input. To teach Stable Diffusion how to generate images, Stability’s programmers scrape (i.e., take or steal, depending on how charitable you’re feeling) the Internet for billions of existing copyrighted images — among them, allegedly, images created by the Plaintiffs. End users (i.e., people like you and me) can then use Stability’s platform to create images in the style of the artists whose work the AI has been trained.

In addition to Stability, the proposed class action suit on behalf of other artists also names as defendants Midjourney, another art generation AI that incorporates Stable Diffusion, and DeviantArt, Inc., an online community for digital artists, which Stability scraped to train Stable Diffusion, and which also offers a platform called DreamUp that is built on Stable Diffusion. 

The Plaintiffs — Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz — allege, among other things, that Defendants infringed on their copyrights, violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and engaged in unfair competition. 

In ruling on Defendants’ motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge William Orrick quickly dismissed the copyright claims brought by McKernan and Ortiz against Stability because they hadn’t registered copyrights in their artworks — oops. 

Anderson, however, had registered copyrights. Nonetheless, Stability argued her claim of copyright infringement should be dismissed because she couldn’t point to specific works that Stability used as training images. The Court rejected that argument. It concluded that the fact she could show that some of her registered works were used for training Stable Diffusion was enough at this stage to allege a violation of the copyright act. 

The judge, however, dismissed Anderson’s direct infringement claim against DeviantArt and Midjourney. With DeviantArt, he found that Plaintiffs hadn’t alleged that DeviantArt had any affirmative role in copying Anderson’s images. For Midjourney, the judge found that Plaintiffs needed to clarify whether the direct infringement claim was based on Midjourney’s use of Stable Diffusion and/or whether Midjourney independently scraped images from the web and used them to train its product. Judge Orrick is allowing them to amend their complaint to do so. 

Because Orrick dismissed the direct infringement claims against DeviantArt and Midjourney, he also dismissed the claims for vicarious infringement against them. (By way of background, vicarious infringement is where a defendant has the “right and ability” to supervise infringing conduct and has a financial interest in that conduct.) Again, however, the Court allowed Plaintiffs to amend their complaint to state claims for direct infringement against DeviantArt and Midjourney, and also to amend their complaint to allege vicarious infringement against Stability for the use of Stable Diffusion by third parties. 

Orrick warned the Plaintiffs (and their lawyers) that he would “not be as generous with leave to amend on the next, expected rounds of motions to dismiss and I will expect a greater level of specificity as to each claim alleged and the conduct of each defendant to support each claim.” 

Plaintiffs also alleged that Defendants violated their right of publicity, claiming that Defendants used their names to promote their AI products. However, the Court dismissed these claims because the complaint didn’t actually allege that the Defendants advertised their products using Plaintiffs’ names. Again, he allowed the Plaintiffs leave to amend. (The Plaintiffs originally tried to base a right of publicity claim on the fact that Defendants’ platforms allowed users to produce AI-generated works “in the style of” their artistic identities. An interesting idea, but Plaintiffs abandoned it.) 

In addition, DeviantArt moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ right of publicity claim on grounds that DeviantArt’s AI platform generated expressive content. Therefore, according to DeviantArt, the Court needed to balance the Plaintiff’s rights of publicity against DeviantArt’s interest in free expression by considering whether the output was transformative. (Under California law, “transformative use” is a defense to a right of publicity claim.) The Court found that this was an issue that couldn’t be decided on a motion to dismiss and would have to wait. 

What are the key takeaways here? For starters, it is fair to say that the judge thought that Plaintiffs’ complaint was not a paragon of clarity. It also seems like the judge thought that Plaintiffs would have a hard time alleging that images created by AI platforms in response to user text input were infringing. However, he seemed to indicate that it was more likely to allow copyright infringement claims based on Stability’s use of images to train Stable Diffusion to proceed.

 

Do You Own You?

It’s long been known that one of the pitfalls of being in the public eye is you don’t control your own image. Paparazzi can take photos of you that can be published anywhere, with the photographer getting paid, the media outlet generating revenue from ad sales and subscriptions, and the subject themselves neither seeing a dime nor having any control over how they look. That’s because traditionally, photographers have full copyright when they capture an image of a celebrity, particularly in public. Now, a bunch of new lawsuits are taking ownership even further out of celebrity hands, with photographers and their agencies suing stars who dare to post paparazzi photos of themselves on their social media accounts without licensing them first. 

There are plenty of celebs under fire at the moment, including LeBron James, Bella Hadid, and Dua Lipa. A few examples: Melrose Place and Real Housewives star Lisa Rinna posted on Instagram photos of herself that were taken by a paparazzo represented by the Backgrid agency; Backgrid is suing Rinna for copyright infringement. Rinna accuses Backgrid of “weaponizing” copyright law, while Backgrid retorts that once one of their paparazzi photos are posted without permission, magazines like People will be less likely to buy it because fans will have already seen it. Another case: model Gigi Hadid, who is being sued for copyright infringement by agency Xclusive-Lee over posting one of its images to Instagram. Hadid’s legal team asserts her post constitutes fair use because Hadid “creatively directed” the photo by choosing her outfit, posing and smiling, thus contributing “many of the elements that the copyright law seeks to protect.” Hadid also cropped the image when she posted it, which she says refocuses the photo on her pose and smile, rather than the photographer’s composition. 

Model Emily Ratajowski recently settled a suit brought by a photographer over a photo he took of her walking outside of a flower shop, her face completely obscured by a bouquet she was carrying. Ratajowski posted the photo on an Instagram story with the text “MOOD FOREVER,” intending to convey how she feels like hiding from paparazzi. While the case settled, the judge indicated her text served as a commentary on the celebrity/paparazzi dynamic that may have amounted to transformative use, protecting her from a copyright claim. 

This wasn’t Ratajkowski’s first battle with copyright law. She wrote a long essay on how it feels to be unable to control her image after a photographer took hundreds of nude photos of her early in her career, supposedly for a magazine editorial, and later published them as several books and showed them in a gallery exhibit — all without asking her permission or paying her. Ratajowski also had photos she posted to her Instagram account turned into “paintings” by renowned appropriation artist Richard Prince and sold for $80,000 each. She writes, “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.” 

It’s easy to sympathize with the celebrities’ position. While mere mortals often scorn celebrity complaints about their lack of privacy and the invasiveness of paparazzi — “hey, it comes with the territory!” — it seems like adding insult to injury to allow paparazzi to take photos of celebrities against their will and then demand the celebs pay to use the photos themselves.

Also, it’s not hard to see why Ratajkowski or others might feel victimized by someone in a position of relative power profiting from images without sharing those profits. (For what it’s worth, a number of states do have laws against revenge porn, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

In that vein, in the wake of #metoo, the celebrities’ position is also appealing because it’s not hard to see it as trying to subvert the male gaze by allowing the (mostly) female celebrity subjects to at least profit from or assert some element of control over the pictures they appear in. 

However, from an intellectual property law point of view, this is not how it works. 

For starters, copyright law is really clear. The copyright for photos rests with the person who took the photo. Posing for a picture is not subject to copyright protection, and copyright law doesn’t give the subject of a photo rights to the copyright. This is because a copyright comes into existence when it is “fixed,” meaning recorded on a piece of film or a memory card — and those are owned by the photographer, not the subject.

Moreover, copyrights trump any publicity rights that celebrities have. Article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution says that Congress has the power to enact laws to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” This is because we as a society benefit from encouraging creators the right to create by allowing them to profit from their work. Celebrities and their lawyers would say that they too should be able to profit because they provided a service by appearing in the photograph and/or by being famous, and thus photoworthy. While the law isn’t supposed to get into judging the relative value of different artistic contributions, let’s be real: there is a difference between the creation of even a bad novel or artwork and smiling for a second into a camera lens on a step-and-repeat. 

What’s more, in contrast to copyright law, the right of publicity is — at least for now — a product of state law. This means that under established law, if there’s a conflict between the rights of a copyright holder and the rights of a celebrity to control his or her image under the applicable right of publicity, the copyright holder’s interests come first. 

This isn’t to say that this is the only policy balance that could be struck between the rights of the copyright holder and the rights of the subject of a photo, but it’s the one, for better or worse, that we currently have. So yes, the law is clear: if you’re a celeb, not only do you not profit from photos taken of you in public, if you want to use them yourself, you have to pay.

Also, look at it this way: none of us own everything about ourselves anymore (think about your personal data), nor do we profit from it. There’s no reason for the famous and the sort-of-famous to be different from everyone else. 

How True is the “True Story”?

In 1989, five Black and Latinx teenagers were prosecuted for and ultimately convicted of assaulting and raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park. The case brought the word “wilding” into the lexicon and drew national attention. 

This attention stemmed, in part, from the defendants’ youth, race, the lack of DNA evidence tying any of them to the assault, and inconsistencies in the defendant’s confessions — confessions eventually proved to be false. Because of these issues and the eventual confession of a serial rapist who took sole responsibility for the crime, the convictions of the youths — who became known as the “Central Park Five” — were vacated. 

For many, both in New York and beyond, this case symbolized New York at its worst and the wrongful use of the criminal justice system to target Black and Latinx men. 

This case is now in the news once again. This time it is because of a defamation case brought by Linda Fairstein, the former head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, who was involved in the prosecution of the Central Park Five. Fairstein, who is now a successful mystery writer, is suing Netflix, writer/director Ava DuVernay, and writer Attica Locke for defamation over how she was portrayed in the miniseries When They See Us

When They See Us, is a four-part series dramatizing the Central Park Five’s experiences from their arrests through their release from prison. It portrays the criminal justice system as the villain and Fairstein’s character (played by Felicity Huffman) as the primary representative of the criminal justice system. Fairstein is shown as determined to see the five teenagers convicted regardless of inconsistencies pointing to their innocence. According to a recent decision in the Southern District of New York, which denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, “the character is portrayed as personally responsible for orchestrating nearly every aspect of the investigation of the [Central Park] Five.” 

Because of the judge’s recent decision, unless the case settles, it will go to trial over five allegedly defamatory scenes. (In 2021, the judge ruled that seven of the scenes Fairstein claimed were defamatory were not actionable.) Fairstein alleges each of these scenes portrays her as responsible for far more of the arrest and prosecution of the Central Park Five than she actually was. For example, one of the allegedly defamatory scenes could be understood to imply that Fairstein improperly delayed providing DNA evidence to the defense, while another shows her instructing the police to round up suspects in Harlem and harshly interrogate them. Fairstein maintains that she didn’t do those things and there’s nothing in the historical record to support the series’ claim that she did have that authority. 

It’s pretty clear that there were some very, very serious problems with the prosecution of the Central Park Five, that innocent men lost years of their lives in prison, that Fairstein played a role in their fate and, that to this day, she seems to be unrepentant, even continuing to indicate skepticism as to their innocence. 

Nonetheless, the judge said there was evidence that “by opting to portray Fairstein as the series villain who was intended to embody the perceived injustices of a broader system,” When They See Us “reverse-engineered plot points to attribute actions, responsibilities and viewpoints to Fairstein that were not hers” and were not reflected in “the substantial body of research materials” assembled in preparing the series. Netflix and its co-defendants, for their part, argue that the filmmakers are allowed to use some dramatic license in creating a portrayal of Fairstein that was substantially true.

Some important things to keep in mind about this case and fictional stories based on real events: 

  1. Even in dramatizations, you can’t ascribe things to real people that aren’t supported by the facts. Here, there will be an issue over whether the series’ portrayal of Fairstein is at least somewhat supported by the factual record. There will be a particular focus on the dissent of and comments by a judge on New York’s highest court who stated that Fairstein “deliberately engineered” a confession from one of the Central Park Five by not allowing a parent to be present.
  2. Fairstein is a public figure and, as such, to prevail at trial she will have to prove not only that certain statements in When They See Us were false, but that the statements were made with “actual malice.” The phrase “actual malice” is confusing because, for the most part, ill will is only a small part of the analysis. As used in the context of defamation, actual malice means that Fairstein will have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the producers, writers, and director had subjective doubts about whether the statements at issue were false or probably false or that they created them with reckless disregard for whether they were true or not.
  3. The inclusion of a disclaimer is not a free pass. Here, Defendants did include a disclaimer stating that various elements had “been fictionalized for purposes of dramatization.” However, that disclaimer appeared only briefly at the end of each episode. This has to be contested against promotions for the series which included the statements “The story you know is the lie they told you” and “Based on the true story of The Central Park Five.”

However the case is resolved, it is clear that really, there are no winners here. 

WallStreetBets Makes the Wrong Bet

Our last post was about who owns a social media account: the company whose products are featured or the individual in the role associated with that account. This week we have another case at the intersection of social media and intellectual property. At issue here is who owns a trademark: the user who first created it or the social media platform (in this case, Reddit) where the mark is first used? 

In early-2012, Jamie Rogozinski launched a subreddit on Reddit called “r/WallStreetBets,” where users could share stock tips and other financial advice. Rogozinski was its first moderator. By early-2020, r/WallStreetBets had grown to more than a million subscribers and Rogozinski published a book titled WallStreetBets: How Boomers Made the World’s Biggest Casino for Millennials. Then, the pandemic happened and the subreddit exploded in popularity. Suddenly, WallStreetBets was a very valuable property.

On March 24, 2020, Rogozinski filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to register the mark WallStreetBets. Two weeks later Reddit notified Rogozinski that it had temporarily suspended his account because, in violation of Reddit’s terms of service, he had “attempted to monetize the community.” Subsequently, Reddit filed its own application to trademark WallStreetBets and sought to have the USPTO block Rogozinski from asserting a trademark in WallStreetBets. 

Rogozinski sued Reddit. He claimed, among other things, ownership of the trademark and that Reddit was infringing on his mark. The heart of his argument was that he owns WallStreetBets because he created the phrase and it is associated with him. Reddit moved to dismiss the complaint and, on July 11, 2023, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney granted Reddit’s motion. 

The court’s decision was based on the fact that the test for trademark ownership is “priority of use.” However, use alone isn’t enough. Rather, the party claiming ownership has to show that it was the first to use the mark in connection with the sale of goods or services. 

Here, while Rogozinski created WallStreetBets, the Court found that Reddit, not Rogozinski, had been using the mark in commerce starting with its inception on January 31, 2012, because any content created on the site becomes a product against which Reddit sells ads. According to Judge Chesney, to own a trademark, you must be “the first to actually use the mark in the sale of goods or services,” and none of the things Rogozinkski did to grow his subreddit “constitutes a use in commerce.”

One big problem with the court’s conclusion here is it could mean that because social media platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and the like have become so integral to marketing products, these companies could be seen as the owners of trademarks in products offered through their platforms. I suspect future cases will need to draw a line between products or services that are part of the social media platform (i.e. the subreddit at issue here) and the products or services that are entirely separate from the social media platform.