The Law and Business of Social Media
August 15, 2012 - DMCA, Copyright, IP, Litigation

The Potential Perils of Posting Pictures (on Social Media)

In today’s information economy, content owners are faced with a challenging decision regarding digital content. On the one hand, the viral nature of social media can mean unprecedented exposure as digital content is shared. On the other, that opportunity can come with significant legal risk if companies take an insufficiently careful approach to intellectual property clearance issues. One luxury clothing brand, Burberry Ltd., recently discovered just how substantial that legal risk can be.

Burberry approached social media with an innovative concept: “historical timelines” on its various social media pages, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These timelines featured photos of celebrities wearing Burberry’s iconic trench coats, scarves, and other products. Among Burberry’s chosen photos was a shot of Humphrey Bogart from the final scene of Casablanca, in which Bogart’s Rick, clad in a timeless Burberry trench, sends Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa off to Brazzaville. While Burberry acquired permission to use the photo from photo agency Corbis, which manages the rights to various stock photos from Casablanca, Burberry failed to clear its use with Bogart LLC, which owns the actor’s publicity rights. Applicable law allows a celebrity to object to use of his or her name or likeness in a commercial context, particularly if the use is likely to cause members of the intended market to believe that the celebrity endorses the product. Bogart LLC alleged that Burberry’s use of the photo falsely implied that Bogart had endorsed the brand, thereby violating Bogart LLC’s publicity rights. Burberry countered, arguing that its timelines constituted “a historical positioning of the image within an educational project along with numerous other photographs of people wearing Burberry apparel over the last century.”

Although Burberry and Bogart LLC settled their pending state and federal cases for an undisclosed amount, this case provides a good example of the unexpected issues that can arise when brand managers fail to consider the full spectrum of rights that may be implicated by the use of photographs and other content. While the content industries have spent the last decade educating the public on copyright law’s effects in the digital media world, less attention has been paid to other areas of potential liability, such as trademark infringement and privacy and publicity rights violations, and their respective effects on the social media experience.

For example, in 2007, Virgin Mobile Australia (VMA) launched an advertising campaign using amateur photography culled from the social photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos used by VMA were licensed under a Creative Commons “Attribution” license, which requires only that the original creator—that is, the copyright holder—be given credit. VMA chose for its campaign a photo of then-15-year-old Alison Chang, taken by her church youth counselor and uploaded by him to Flickr. Although VMA had appropriate copyright clearance to use the counselor’s picture under the Creative Commons license, Chang’s parents sued VMA for failing to get permission from Chang or her parents to use Chang’s name or likeness. Although the case was dismissed on procedural grounds, the incident illustrates how easily (and often) clearance procedures are overlooked when it comes to Internet-based content.

Similar cases have raised complex issues relating to federal preemption of state law claims. For example, in Laws v. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., the plaintiff sued Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J, alleging misappropriation of her name and voice through use of a sound recording on which the plaintiff’s voice was featured. The defendants had obtained a license to use the sound recording on which the plaintiff’s voice was featured, but had not obtained from the plaintiff the right to use her voice. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit held that, on this set of facts, the federal Copyright Act preempted the plaintiff’s state law right-of-publicity claim. Thus, her permission was not required for the defendants to use the validly licensed sound recording. By contrast, a different Ninth Circuit panel in Downing v. Abercrombie & Fitch, Inc., held that the Copyright Act did not preempt the plaintiffs’ state law publicity claims based on Abercrombie’s advertising use of a photo of the plaintiffs taken after the 1965 Makaha International Surf Championship in Hawaii. Thus, Abercrombie should have sought the plaintiffs’ permission in the first instance. The preemption inquiry is fact-bound—the Copyright Act preempts state law publicity claims in some circumstances, but not others.

While the details of these preemption cases exceed the scope of this article, suffice it to say that a company’s social media marketing personnel may not have the expertise to wade through such complex clearance issues. A clearance system that focuses narrowly on copyright issues and doesn’t consider other forms of intellectual property may therefore result in unexpected claims. It is also worth noting that the safe harbors provided by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act apply only to copyright claims, not other types of claims such as those mentioned above, and in any event, provide protection only with respect to user-generated content, not content posted by a company’s own employees. Therefore, companies should not assume that the DMCA will shield them from all liability for content posted on their social media pages.

Social media is an exciting new channel for reaching both current and prospective customers. But from a rights-clearance perspective, the old rules largely remain in force. Accordingly, companies’ review procedures for company-driven social media content should, to the extent possible, mirror the process they undertake for print ads and other traditional media. And where that may not be feasible (given the speed and flexibility often required on social media platforms), companies should institute rigorous policies and train marketing associates on how to avoid potential liability.