Legislation

While I most often write on Law Law Land about copyrightsInternet issues, and various things Hollywood, the bread and butter of my practice is employment litigation: more specifically, representing employers who are sued for wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment, and/or wage and hour claims. In California, employment laws tend to favor employees, and like any employer, Hollywood employers are vulnerable to employment lawsuits when they don’t cross their T’s and dot their I’s (and sometimes even when they do).

The Hollywood employment lawsuit du jour was brought against MTV by a former employee on the show The Hills. Do you remember that trip to Costa Rica the cast took for the 100th episode of the show? Yeah, me neither — as much as I love me some Justin Bobby/Audrina drama (almost as much as I love James Franco and Mila Kunis’ spoof of them during the writers’ strike), I just couldn’t stomach K-Cav as leading lady. [Ed. Note: Did any of the last sentence mean anything to you, dear readers? No, me neither.] But this Costa Rica trip will now live on in infamy, not only as the trip where Justin Bobby apparently wore a Confederate flag hat, but also as the trip that fueled this lawsuit.

According to the complaint, Eliza Sproul was a Field Clearance Coordinator/Production Coordinator on The Hills and accompanied Kristin and crew to Costa Rica. There, her employment “took a turn for the worse” when she was allegedly pressured with drugs, sexually harassed, and forced to work long hours until she “essentially broke down” from exhaustion. The complaint was just filed on October 18, so MTV has not yet filed any responsive papers. But I’m going to put on my employment litigator hat for a moment to analyze Ms. Sproul’s claims.
Continue Reading

Yelp.com describes itself as “the fun and easy way to find and talk about great (and not so great) local businesses.” It proclaims that “[a]s of August 2011, more than 63 million people visited Yelp within the past 30 days.” Its tagline: “Real people. Real reviews.®”

I view Yelp.com as one of the many unnecessary, “Web 2.0” websites I will never use that litters the information superhighway like marine snow in the deep ocean. My wife views it as a source of idle entertainment, where she can enjoy reviews that palaver about Jersey Shore-like drama, before even getting to whether a particular restaurant had good food or not. But some businesses have complained, and even filed lawsuits against Yelp,

alleging that Yelp salespeople represent to businesses that Yelp has the power to manipulate Yelp.com business listing pages, and that Yelp will wield that power in favor of the business if it becomes a “Yelp Sponsor” and against the business if it declines to do so.

In other words, some businesses claim that Yelp is the like the internet mafia, asking business owners for protection money to make those bad reviews sleep with the fishes. Is it true?
Continue Reading

Sometimes mistakes are made by accident. Sometimes mistakes are made on purpose (which, I guess, makes them not really mistakes). And sometimes, mistakes are made by, um, stupidity. File this one under stupid.

The Attorney General of the Navajo Nation recently sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the corporation stop using the Navajo Nation’s trademarks to sell clothing and accessories that are completely unrelated to the Navajo people. Urban Outfitters’ (extremely tasteful) line of 24 “Navajo”-themed items included such surefire crowd-pleasers (pictured below) as the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and the Navajo flask — especially charming, I’m sure, to a Native American community that has long struggled with alcoholism and whose alcohol-related mortality rate is nearly 12%. Or maybe the style-makers at UO just hadn’t heard.

Just a few items from Urban Outfitters’ site described as “Navajo."

But Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo” product line wasn’t just culturally insensitive (not to mention egregiously ugly). It was also probably a violation of both trademark law and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
Continue Reading

If there’s any pattern in my blog posts, it’s that they are often inspired by my real-life experiences. This one is no different. Recently, I arrived home around 9 p.m. and was greeted by the sound of machine-gun fire that sounded like it was coming from across the street. My husband was out watching a football game (the rival team I poked fun at here) so I had nobody to confirm if there was, in fact, urban warfare taking over the mean streets of Hancock Park, or if it was jut my imagination. The sound continued intermittently every 15–20 minutes for the next hour, with me jumping out of my seat every time (and our cat jumping out of his seat in the window), until my husband got home and confirmed that it was neither my imagination nor an uprising of disgruntled Larchmont Village bakery-goers: a movie was being filmed on the next block over. Sure enough, I seem to have ignored the giant light hovering over the block, which was so bright it could have lit an entire football field for a nighttime game.

The next morning, I drove by to check it out, and saw the block lined with 1940’s-style cars, including a police car and an ambulance. Some Internet sleuthing revealed that the movie being filmed was Gangster Squad, a period piece slated to come out in 2012 with a star-studded cast including Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn.

My first thought, of course, was, Cool! Maybe I can go stroll by after work and get a glimpse of the filming!

My second thought, since I am obviously a law dork, was, I wonder whether the neighbors have any rights with regard to the movie being filmed there?
Continue Reading

This blogger knows a little something about name changes, since I am in the process of changing from my maiden name to my married name (and still receiving almost daily emails saying “Rachel who???”). As I learned in the days leading up to the wedding, in California, when you get married you have a few options as far as changing your name. The wife can take her husband’s last name, the husband can take his wife’s last name, or both people can change their last name to some combination of the two. (I lobbied halfheartedly for “Wilchie,” but no dice.)

Outside of the marriage context, however, formal name changes must be done in court. While this certainly allows for more variety and creativity in the selection of a new name, the statutory name change process is more intricate. Among other things, it requires publishing notice of the requested name change in the newspaper for four weeks, ostensibly to give potential creditors and interested government officials an opportunity to discover any nefarious attempts to avoid them by changing one’s name. (L.A. Laker Ron Artest’s name change to “Metta World Peace” — really — was initially delayed by outstanding parking tickets.) Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to any enterprising legislator to revise the law to allow name-changers to Tweet their new names, or post them to Facebook or Google+.

Even in the absence of a formal name change, you can always ask people to call you whatever you desire, a request that lawyers have jargonistically dubbed a “common law” name change. (For example, I’ve told my colleagues who can’t deal with my new last name that they may now refer to me as “The attorney formerly known as Wilkes.”) But even in Hollywood, the land of self-invention and reinvention — where celebrities name their children after everything from fruit to superheroes — there is still a limit as to what people can legally call themselves. Just ask cannabis activist, convicted felon, perennial candidate for New Jersey political office, and Los Angeles transplant Robert Edward (“Ed”) Forchion, Jr., who learned firsthand last month that the sky’s not the limit when it comes to statutory name changes in California, when the Second Appellate District affirmed the denial of his petition to change his personal name to the name of his website, NJweedman.com.
Continue Reading

What do you get when you mix a racy photo, alleged computer hacking, Twitter, and a Congressman named Weiner? (Besides Jon Stewart’s debut as an R&B producer.) That’s right, faithful readers, you get a smorgasbord of 21st century legal issues, and an example of why privacy is harder to keep than ever. You also get a great reason to think twice about what you save on your computer. And you get the joy of what is undoubtedly the best name for a scandal since “DickiLeaks.”

You’ve probably heard about Congressman Anthony Weiner, and the tough week he’s had. To recap, Weiner’s hard drive was “hacked” and a bulging photo (labeled “package.jpg”!) was sent to a college student from his Twitter account. Then the interwebs started chirping and the politician non-denial denials started (“I can’t say with certitude” [that it isn’t my bulging crotch making the Internet rounds]). Then the conservative bloggers found some absurd photos of Weiner showing off his pecs in front of framed photos of his family. And before you know it, we’ve got tearful televised confessions (“The picture was of me, I sent it”), and voila, a new word is seared into the American collective consciousness: Weinergate! It’s hard not to feel both bad for and perplexed by Weiner, even if he isn’t exactly the first New York Congressman to get caught sending racy pics this year. But I can also only feel so bad about any situation that results in one of my coworkers walking into a department meeting and announcing, “I can’t get enough Weiner!”

Of course, at this point, we all know that Weiner’s initial explanation for the sudden proliferation of his groinal region on the Internet — that his Twitter account was “hacked” — was as bogus as it sounded. But what if we lived in a magical world where a politician’s initial explanation for a totally inexplicable scandal was actually true? Let’s look at what anti-hacking laws say Weiner could have done. (Besides resigning, hiding out for a year, then taking a cushy job on cable news).

(Note: not covered here are potential claims for copyright infringement based on the unauthorized distribution of the photo itself, a favorite theory in the ever-popular celebrity-trying-to-block-a-sex-tape segment.)
Continue Reading

Q: I’d like to use some audio from an old radio show. My research so far reveals the show…like many old radio shows…was never copyrighted. How does one determine the copyright status of something like a radio show?

A: Let’s first talk about where copyright law is today with respect to the need for copyright registrations. Remember those old SAT questions where they asked you to find the two pairs of things that were most alike? Well, under current U.S. copyright law, copyright registrations are to copyright owners as permanently affixed Bluetooth earpieces are to morons. You don’t have to have a copyright registration to be a copyright owner, but if you do have a registration, you’ve put the public on notice that you are, indeed, a copyright owner.
Continue Reading

Ever since the calendar flipped into 2011, we the people have been flooded with half-headlines about Republican candidates-in-waiting who may or may not be running for president in 2012. And now that Barack Obama has (surprise!) announced his intention to run for re-election, people are more interested than ever to learn who might be opposing him.

Because no one necessarily wants to be the first out of the gate — and therefore, perhaps, the first subject to stringent regulations governing candidates for federal office — the statements have been comically non-committal, if not borderline impossible to parse. Last month, Newt Gingrich declared that he was “excited about exploring whether there is sufficient support for my potential candidacy for president of this exceptional country.” (Super.) A couple weeks ago Tim Pawlenty boldly declared on Piers Morgan Tonight, “I’m running for president!” — after which his spokesman announced that no decision had been made, and that Pawlenty’s people had “expressed our displeasure” with CNN for “report[ing] the full quote out of context.” (Thanks for clearing that up.) Obviously, we can assume that any presidential announcement is “not intended to be a factual statement.”

But no one has played the game of am-I-or-aren’t-I-running better than Donald Trump, whose presidential ambitions have been the subject of rampant speculation since last fall. Trump has made many comments about his potential Presidential bid, and has even been endorsed by Gary Busey (umm…good for him?). Last Friday, Trump’s spokesman made the following announcement:

On the May 22 season finale of Celebrity Apprentice, Mr. Trump may announce the time and place of a press conference at which time he will make a statement as to whether or not he will run for president of the United States.

In other words, on April 15, Trump announced that, on May 22, he may announce the future time and date at which he may announce that he’s running for president (in an election that’s taking place 19 months from now). It was an announcement of a potential announcement about another announcement. I’m not certain, but this may have ripped a hole in the space-time-logic continuum.

But this is an entertainment law blog, not a political blog. So I won’t use this blog post to poke fun at Donald Trump Republicans our political system (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbertdo suchgood job already). Instead I’m going to talk about how The Donald’s candidacy would affect his hit reality TV show, The [optional: Celebrity] Apprentice. (The same issue would have arisen with Sarah Palin’s Alaska had that show not been — *emo tear* —canceled after its first season in January. And people say Americans have no taste in television.)
Continue Reading

Our loyal Law Law Land readers already know about the intrigue that surrounds so-called court “reality” shows like Judge Judy and The People’s Court. (For those who missed it, I broke the shocking news that — brace yourselves, people — those “courts” aren’t really courts at all.) So where can avid followers turn for a glimpse of real-life justice? In many cases, the public’s view of the inside of a court trial is limited to the lifelike renderings of the courtroom’s sketch artist. But occasionally, a judge decides to allow a video camera into the courtroom and we can watch the proceedings for ourselves.

Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor ruled that a television camera will be allowed in the courtroom for the involuntary manslaughter trial of Michael Jackson’s former doctor, Conrad Murray, for which jury selection began last week. Judge Pastor asked for the “absolute least-intrusive placement” of the camera and prohibited cameras from being present at jury selection.

Judge Pastor was able to make that ruling because in state courts in California, pursuant to California Rule of Court 1.150, “Photographing, recording, and broadcasting of courtroom proceedings may be permitted as circumscribed in this rule if executed in a manner that ensures that the fairness and dignity of the proceedings are not adversely affected.” Specifically, a judge “in his or her discretion may permit, refuse, limit, or terminate media coverage.”

In making his decision, the judge must take into account a whole litany of factors, including: the importance of maintaining public trust and confidence in the judicial system; the importance of promoting public access to the judicial system; the parties’ support of or opposition to the request; privacy rights of participants; the maintenance of the orderly conduct of the proceeding; and any other factor the judge deems relevant. In sum, a state court judge has a ton of discretion, especially because he can consider “any factor [he] deems relevant.” (I, for one, would propose a few additional factors for consideration, like “how to best avoid an O.J. Simpson trial-style media circus” or, a closely related inquiry, “how to not be Judge Lance Ito.”)
Continue Reading

You may not know it to look at me, but I have a very macabre sense of humor. I adore the books of Edward Gorey and, in particular, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a spot-on and (for those who are into tragic juvenile demise) hilarious parody of children’s ABC books in which each of the rhyming couplets recounts various unusual ways in which children have met ghastly fates: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…” (Not that I’m ever bored at work, but I’ve had a photocopy of “N” posted on my computer for years: “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui.”)

I’m also a huge fan of Shockheaded Peter, a nightmarish and (again, for those who love young children meeting ironic fates…should my own daughter be concerned by this?) hilarious spectacle/stage production based on a 19th Century German book of children’s cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffman, in which rude and naughty children all meet gruesome, yet well-deserved ends. Take, for example, “Fidgety Phil,” the tale of a boy who refuses to sit still at the dinner table and is impaled by cutlery when he pulls off the tablecloth at dinnertime. Or “Snip Snip,” in which an incessantly thumb-sucking boy bleeds to death after an evil tailor cuts off his thumbs (his mother reacts simply by saying toldya so!). The last line of virtually every song concludes with the matter-of fact sentiment: “And he was DEAD.” “And she DIED.” The end. You can imagine what happens in “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches”…

Well, remember the Troubling Tale of the Two-Steppin’ Toddler? No, it isn’t in the Second Act of Shockheaded Peter, but it certainly qualifies as a Litigation Cautionary Tale in my book.

This Dreadful Story — or, as it is more commonly known in legal circles, the Lenz v .Universal case — began with a dancing baby. We’ve covered this ground before, but let’s review the highlights:
Continue Reading