‘You Know How to Whistle, Don’t You? Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow.’

If you don’t know who said that or in what motion picture, stop reading and go to the next article. California Governor Schwarzenegger has just signed a bill specifically aimed at altering the future results of fact patterns analogous to two recent court decisions relating to the licensing of publicity rights for deceased celebrities. The two cases—one in New York and the other in California—dealt with a challenge to the right to license the use of Marilyn Monroe’s name and likeness for commercial purposes. The rulings stated that because at the time of her death neither California nor New York had a law allowing publicity rights to survive the death of a celebrity, and because those rights were not specifically bequeathed by Marilyn Monroe, those rights could not be construed as part of the “rest, residue and remainder” of her estate, and consequently not be part of the rights available to her estate (or subsequent licensors like the plaintiffs in these cases).

The legislation just signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger makes retroactive to before Jan. 1, 1985, the right of a celebrity’s estate to construe publicity rights as part of a “rest, residue and remainder” as a bequest in a celebrity’s will. January 1, 1985 was the effective date of the current California law allowing publicity rights to survive the death of a celebrity. Unfortunately, New York still does not have a law allowing publicity rights to survive the death of the celebrity.

Shop, Then Drop

Potentially signaling tougher enforcement initiatives ahead, New York recently enacted a law that gives consumers who shop online, essentially the same types of consumer protections available when buying over the phone or through the mail. New York’s law that now applies to sales over the Internet means that merchants must reasonably expect to be able to ship the goods ordered within 30 days or the order can’t be accepted; merchants who use a post office box or other fulfillment mail address must display (prominently) the company’s name and physical street address; merchants must allow a consumer to cancel any order that doesn’t actually ship within 30 days and either obtain a refund or pick substitute merchandise; the merchant must clearly detail the conditions under which the consumer will be entitled to a refund; and the merchant must keep records of consumer complaints that deal with failures to ship or to provide advertised goods and services.

Content is King, but the Medium Is Still the Message

Recently lawyers have begun to debate the question of just how much control advertisers can exert when paying for product placements or branded entertainment before the line between First Amendment expression by the creative staff putting together the program and the financial subsidies from advertisers is crossed. Now, the Ninth Circuit has dealt with a similar question relating to the immunity that interactive computer service providers have typically enjoyed under the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”). The CDA insulates service providers from liability so long as the service provider remains a publisher of information and content of others (there are exceptions, so the immunity is not blanket and you should always consult legal advice for specifics that apply to your situation). That said, a company that operates an online web service that specializes in matching roommates based on their preferences has been held in violation of the Fair Housing Act because a questionnaire put together by the company asks for certain demographic information that, when posted on the website, could be used by users and site visitors to discriminate against others. The company, Roommates.com, asked users to disclose information, among other things, about roommate preferences such as age, sex, children, etc. The Ninth Circuit held that although Roommates.com was immune as long as it was simply enabling the distribution or display of information provided by its members, when it became an information content provider, it lost immunity with respect to that activity and information. And by putting together the questionnaires and soliciting their preferences in response, Roommates.com was not simply posting content authored by users, but rather was eliciting specific information that could be abused and that might or might not have been voluntarily posted or disclosed absent the questionnaires.

Hmmmm…user profiles, play lists, segmented marketing, asking consumers to participate in promotions…this is an interesting test of the limitations of the CDA to protect and insulate interactive online service providers from liability. As social networks, virtual worlds and other digital arenas that don’t simply enable but also solicit or encourage certain information to be provided, and as web services become more targeted, focused and segmented to match consumer preferences, the immunity is likely to be tested further. Stay tuned.

Want to Know What to Do After a Data Breach?

Read “After a Data Breach: Navigating the tangle of state notification laws can be exasperating—and costly” an Oct. 29, 2007 article by Jennifer McAdams, posted on ComputerWorldI was interviewed and quoted in the article. I have helped numerous companies navigate the tangled web of state laws and regulations that have appeared in the past few years, and the ATM Law group tracks and keeps up-to-date on developments in state and federal law concerning this important issue.