Talent

In celebration of Tax Day today, we here at Law Law Land offer tribute to our favorite celebrity/IRS run-ins.  Now, lest you think this is just another list airing dirty celebrity tax laundry, think again.  This is a classy publication, as you well know, so if you’re looking for dirt on which celebrities owe what, look elsewhere. . . like 


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nancy morgan

Picture a sexy young bride, reclining sensuously on the nuptial bed.  Smiling seductively, she lifts her wedding dress — a stretch white mini — to give her new husband a glimpse of the lingerie covering her private parts.

The happy couple.  Fully clothed.Come to think of it, you don’t have to imagine this scenario.  You can see the photograph of pop artist/bride Noelia Monge and her manager/husband Jorge Reynoso in Issue 633 of TVNotas magazine.  (A decidedly less scandalous photo of the happy couple is here on the right.  Sorry, folks, this is a family-friendly blog.)

Didn’t know they were married, did you?  Neither did anyone else — until their hitherto personal wedding photos appeared in the aforementioned gossip magazine, unbeknownst to the couple.

In a case that even federal judges had to admitread like a telenovela, Monge and Reynoso sued publisher Maya Magazines in Los Angeles federal court, alleging copyright infringement and misappropriation of likeness.  The trial court dismissed the claims and held that the publisher had the right to publish the photographs under the fair use doctrine, which provides refuge from infringement claims when the use of copyrighted material is for purposes such as news reporting.

But last month, the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that TVNotas’ publication of the happy couple’s extra-happy-looking photos was not protected by the fair use doctrine, setting up Monge and Reynoso to claim some damages.  But in a world where celebrities are constantly battling to limit their exposure in the tabloid press, how did Monge and Reynoso win this fight?  And what does it mean for the constant struggle between celebrities and publishers?


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The right of publicity — the legal doctrine that protects the right of celebrities to control and profit from their names, likenesses, and other aspects of their identities — is a familiar topic here at Law Law Land.  But it can be a more complicated subject than we sometimes give it credit for.  Unlike copyright and trademark law, which are (mostly) defined by federal statutes that provide for consistent nationwide rules, the right of publicity is exclusively a creature of state law.  And, thanks to the patchwork of inconsistent and often confusing state laws that have evolved over the years (with heavy influence and lobbying from the heirs of particularly valuable/merchandisable celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein), its application to the dearly departed can get pretty quirky.  For example:

Are you a celebrity who died as a California resident?  Great — your heirs can exclusively exploit your name and likeness for another 70 years!  Oh, were you actually a New York resident when you died?  Just kidding, then, your heirs are totally out of luck, and unauthorized t-shirts with your face will be hitting stores shortly.  That is, unless, your heirs sue in Washington or Indiana, which purport to apply their right of publicity laws to any individual, regardless of whether the celebrity’s state of domicile recognizes the right.  Unless, of course, the federal courts decide that those laws are unconstitutional (a conclusion reached by a Washington district court in a 2011 case involving Jimi Hendrix; the Ninth Circuit will be making its own ruling soon).  And even among those states that expressly recognize a post-mortem right of publicity, there is broad disagreement about the length of protection afforded, the retroactivity of the statutes, and a whole host of other issues.  Got it?  Don’t worry, nobody else does either.

Just ask the lawyers for the estate of Marilyn Monroe, whose recent unsuccessful right of publicity lawsuit could be “Exhibit A” in renewed effort to enact a federal right of publicity law.


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If you’re like me, every once in a while, you see an adorable-looking dog and just say to yourself, “Oh dogs, gotta love ‘em.”  And, if you’re like me and live in Los Angeles, you occasionally follow that by saying to yourself, “What the…?!  Can that adorable-looking dog really be standing in the middle of this [department store/market/restaurant]?”  Singer/reality star/(alleged) plastic surgery cautionary tale Aubrey O’Day recently brought that question to the front of many people’s minds, with her decision to allow her dogs to sit on the tables at local brunch spot Toast reportedly triggering a city Health Department investigation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid animal lover.  I even wanted to be a vet in high school, when I was trying to “find” myself.  But anytime I see a starlet with a pink-clad Chihuahua (or three) sticking out of her purse, I can’t help but ask how pets have managed to become people’s latest accessory, going almost everywhere with their owners (if the word “owner” makes you cringe, I apologize in advance, but that’s a legal term and not intended to hurt the feelings of any animals reading this blog).   And aside from people’s disapproving glares, are there any limits to where your favorite celebrities (and you) can bring their pets?


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On behalf of Law Law Land, I would like to apologize to HBO, the New York courts, and basically, the world at large. A few months ago, my colleague Elisabeth Moriarty suggested that a creative Indonesian monkey should, perhaps, be afforded copyright rights in his adorable self-portrait. That suggestion must have angered the intellectual property gods, who have now unleashed their wrath upon the simian world. Some bozo, I recently learned, sued a cartoon ape for purported right of publicity violations and infliction of emotional distress. Rest easy, Magilla — no one is on to you for that failed bank robbery attempt. I’m talking about the lawsuit recently filed by Johnny Devenanzio… (If you are wondering who this Johnny fellow is, don’t worry, you are not alone.)

For those of you who are not MTV reality show devotees, let’s get you up to speed. Johnny got his start on the Real World Key West, a “true story…of eight strangers…picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real.” Johnny then appeared on The Challenge — which used to be called The Real World-Road Rules Challenge, at least back when anyone I know cared about The Real World, or Road Rules, or any kind of challenge that might pit the two against each other — and he continued to make a fool of himself on numerous The Challengespin-offs (all of which involved copious amounts of alcohol, the occasional fist fight, and a fair amount of stupidity). These shows portrayed Johnny as an arrogant, scheming meathead who likes to stir up drama, earning him the nickname “Johnny Bananas.” (Ironically, you can also hire Johnny to give lectures on alcohol awareness, humility, and conflict resolution. That sounds like a great idea…)

Now, let’s get to the lawsuit. With a little help from lawyer Stephanie Ovadia (yes, the same lawyer who represented our beloved Lindsay Lohan in some of her most entertaining lawsuitsever), Johnny is suing the people behind the hit HBO series Entourage (R.I.P.). The lawsuit is based on a storyline involving a fictional cartoon called Johnny’s Bananas in which Kevin Dillon’s character, Johnny “Drama” Chase, lends his voice to a cartoon ape, aptly named Johnny, who tends to go “bananas” when things don’t go his way. Angered by this storyline (and likely upset after his lawyer pointed out that he has a striking resemblance — both mentally and physically — to an unattractive, hot-headed cartoon ape), the real-life Johnny is now claiming that HBO is trying to capitalize on a nickname that he “is solely responsible for creating.” (Apparently Johnny needs to brush up on his Chicago mobster trivia, as he’s not the only “Johnny Bananas” around.)

In his complaint, Johnny seeks an injunction to bar HBO, Time Warner Cable, and Entourage creator Doug Ellin from (a) distributing or broadcasting Entourage’s final season in any way, shape, or form, and (b) manufacturing and selling Johnny’s Bananas merchandise. Johnny also seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the tremendous emotional distress he suffered as a result of Entourage’s “offensive and disparaging” use of his nickname. Does Johnny have a shot at victory?
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Q: How binding is a letter of intent? Nearly eight years ago, I signed a one-paragraph agreement in which I allowed a producer to attach himself to my original screenplay and shop it around. He found no takers and hasn’t submitted the script anywhere for at least five years. Now I’m thinking of reviving the project, but would prefer to do so without the producer’s involvement. Do I have any further legal or moral obligation to him? I would like to add that no money exchanged hands; the producer never actually optioned or bought my screenplay.

A: A true letter of intent is as binging as your To Do list, or at least it should be. You intend to do the things on your To Do list, but if you don’t do them you won’t get sued. The only way a letter of intent is legally binding is if it’s not truly a letter of intent. It’s not what you call something, it’s what it is. You can have a piece of paper called a letter of intent that actually contains a binding agreement or you can have something called a binding agreement that actually contains no agreement at all but just a list of non-binding things the parties intend. It seems like you have something called a letter of intent which actually contains your agreement to attach a producer to your screenplay.
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With this year’s Fashion’s Night Out just days away, I can’t help but think of Alexander McQueen, whose tragic suicide last year deprived the fashion world of one of its greatest talents. McQueen had no children, but made sure his dogs were well taken care of by leaving over $80,000 in his will for the care of Juice, Callum, and Minter. (Nope, I didn’t make up those names.) McQueen also left money to his housekeepers, siblings, nieces and nephews, and charities (including two animal welfare charities — McQueen was clearly an animal lover).

But Alexander McQueen is hardly the first high-profile figure to decide that nothing says “I love you, Fido” like a massive trust fund. And, in most of the United States, the law is specifically equipped to make sure that these pampered pups are taken care of long after their owners have gone to that great dog park in the sky.
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Remember the good old days when Jennifer Lopez made headlines for harmless things like bold fashion choices and a semi-legendary backside? These days, though, it seems like J-Lo makes news less for her talents as an actress/singer/Paula Abdul replacement, and more for her divorces. In the midst of swirling gossip about the demise of her marriage to Marc Anthony, J-Lo has been battling in court, trying to stop her first husband, waiter-turned-chef-turned-professional celebrity-ex/litigant Ojani Noa, from selling the rights to a series of home videos made during their short-lived marriage. (This is, in fact, the second time Noa has tried to sell rights to the story of his ill-fated marriage to the Puerto Rican starlet; apparently, a permanent injunction and a $500,000 damages award didn’t teach him a lesson).

Some quarters of the Internet were no doubt crushed to hear that, unlike last time, Noa is now reportedly hawking home videos of a rather G-rated variety. And while the newest headlines about J. Lo’s ongoing battle with Noa vaguely trumpeted a J-Lo victory, behind the A-list names in the headline (or rather, the one A-list name and the ex-husband of the A-list name) was a legal issue only a lawyer could love — whether the dispute between Lopez and Noa would have to proceed via private binding arbitration or in court (Lopez succeeded in pushing the case to arbitration, shielding any salacious tidbits that might come out of this nasty battle from public view). But of course, the idea of the public release of celebrity home videos (whether G or XXX rated) always piques the interest of our voyeur culture.

Of course, J-Lo is in a better position than many celebrities trying to keep their private lives private, in that her long and sordid legal history with Noa has created a paper trail of contractual agreements between the two on which she can now rely (more on that later). But putting aside the quirkier aspects of the Lopez/Noa dispute, the general question remains: can a famous celebrity like J-Lo stop a gold-digging ex from profiting off home videos made during the relationship?
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Spoiler alert: not all movies succeed.

In any given year, the bombs will outnumber the blockbusters, much to the dismay of the companies fronting the cash (and that doesn’t even count all the movies that “lose money” on paper). American treasury bonds may no longer be AAA gold-plated, but you better believe they’re a safer bet than financing a movie — just ask every pro athlete who went bankrupt investing their multi-million dollar advance into a pet motion picture project. But not everybody who watches their investment wither and die at the hands of unforgiving reviewers and uninterested audiences is willing to just walk away. For these investors, there is recoupment by litigation (and entertainment lawyers everywhere rejoiced!).

Consider the financiers of the movie Free Style, who filed a lawsuit last week in hopes of salvaging their investment in the box office bomb. Unsurprisingly, the suit names the producers as defendants, alleging that they made misrepresentations about the marketing budget and the scope of the movie’s release. More interestingly, though, the financiers are going directly after star Corbin Bleu (of High School Musical fame, for those of you without tweenage daughters), alleging that he failed to honor an agreement to provide interviews to promote the film. As a result, say the money men, after they loaned $8.57 million, the movie only earned $1.3 million from all sources including foreign distribution and DVD sales. (If you’re thinking that’s not so bad, chew on this: the movie earned only $463 on opening weekend in the United States. Yes, 463 dollars, no zeros added. The investors might have been better off selling their collectible Barbies on eBay that weekend.)

Since you’ve likely never heard of the movie (case in point?), here’s a synopsis: “High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu trades in his dancing shoes for a helmet in this family film. InFree Style, young Cale (Bleu) gives his all in his effort to be on the Grand National Motocross racing team, while his mother (Penelope Ann Miller), sister (The Game Plan’s Madison Pettis), and girlfriend (Sandra Echeverria) cheer him on.”

I’ll give you a moment while you toggle over to Netflix to add the DVD to your queue. You’re welcome.

So, having taken the unusual step of suing the star of their film, what hurdles do the investors face in proving their case against Bleu?
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