Many people consult with psychics.  Not an unusual thing to do (certainly not in California).  But not a lot of people spend the next 38 years adding rooms to their houses because the soothsayer said spirits would kill them if construction ever stopped.  At least one person is reported to have done so:  Sarah Winchester, the widow of the son of the famed gunmaker.  By the time the heiress died in 1922 at age 82, her seven-room farmhouse had become a seven-story, 160-room Victorian-style mansion, replete with winding dead-end passageways, interior windows, and doors to nowhere.

hauntedThese types of legends make good movies, which is why a production company approached the owner of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, to request permission to film there.  The owner turned it down, stating that another company had already acquired the rights to the Winchester story.  The filmmakers went ahead and made their movie anyway, calling it Haunting of Winchester House and putting a Victorian-style mansion on the DVD cover.  You can guess what happened next.

The case that followed, Winchester Mystery House, LLC v. Global Asylum, Inc., represents a classic battle seen frequently in the world of entertainment litigation:  the trademark owner who wishes to preserve his exclusive rights to a particular name vs. the artist who wishes to use that name as part of a creative work.  And the battleground?  The First Amendment, of course.  So what happens when the owners of one of America’s most famous haunted houses take on the filmmakers who have gone renegade to tell its (highly fictionalized) story?


Continue Reading Haunted House Doesn’t Scare Off Filmmaker

We here at Law Law Land are big fans of Halloween, the drunkest, sluttiest, most creative and fun-loving holiday of the year.  Law Law Land HQ itself is awash in cat ears and warlock coats today, and your editor is looking forward to a heaven-vs.-hell, angel-vs.-devil ping pong grudge match of epic proportions tonight.  But if you’re looking for a real fright on Halloween night, just consider some of the following truly scary cases and claims.

If the Past Is Never Dead, Does That Mean the Past Is Undead?

William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Woody Allen-mouthpiece Owen Wilson less-famously said, in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, “The past is not dead!  Actually, it’s not even past.  You know who said that?  Faulkner.  And he was right.  And I met him, too.  I ran into him at a dinner party.”  And Faulkner’s estate is now infamously saying that, if you use Faulkner’s line (ish) in a movie, with attribution, you have broken the law.

Faulkner’s estate is suing Sony Pictures Classics for copyright infringement and trademark infringement, claiming that Midnight in Paris’s misquote of Faulkner’s famous aphorism from 1950’sRequiem for a Nun not only infringes their copyright, but also violates the federal trademark statute by deceiving viewers into believing that the movie was affiliated, endorsed, or authorized by the Faulkner estate.  So are Sony’s lawyers running scared into the night?  Not likely.  But the distant howls you might be hearing are actually the pained wails of frustrated intellectual property law professors everywhere.

(Special kudos to the usually-dry-as-a-skeleton Courthouse News Service for observing, “at risk of offending the shade, or estate, of Charles Dickens:  This is a far, far weirder thing than Sony has ever done.”)


Continue Reading The Scariest Day of the Year…for Legal Claims Too

My daughter has always been squeamish about eyeballs.

Ask her to name the scariest movie of all time?  Who Framed Roger Rabbit, of course.  She saw it once (and only once) at the age of four, and the scene near the end, in which the flattened Judge Doom re-inflates himself and reveals the malevolent Toon lurking beneath his popped-out prosthetic eyeballs, scarred her for life.  And so, our family will always fast-forward past the melting of Nazi agent Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, decline to mourn the loss of Mad-Eye Moody inHarry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part I, and just steer clear of the absolute abomination that is Large Marge in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

I mention all this so that you will understand the sense of abject horror and dread I experienced when, several weeks ago, I drove to work down Motor Avenue and found myself face to face with a giant, eerie nun, her face as white as alabaster, crying (or bleeding?) black liquid from alien-like eyes.  It was a (thoroughly disturbing) billboard for American Horror Story: Asylum looming over the entrance to Fox Studios.  Adjacent to our beloved dog park.  Big as the Times Square Jumbotron.  I knew my daughter would freak out, and freak she did.

She insisted that I call the studio and demand that the billboard be removed immediately, which gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss that little thing called the First Amendment.  Once I got going, she quickly went from billboard-ed to bored, and ultimately resolved to cover her eyes with a sweatshirt if I would simply shut up.  But the issue stuck with me.  As an attorney, I’m comfortable with the fact that First Amendment expression should not be unduly chilled by a ten-year-old with a (perhaps unreasonable) eye phobia.  But the mom in me took umbrage at this offensive (or at least unsettling) billboard content.  Should Fox have the right to upset my kid on a daily basis in its attempt to bring more “eyeballs” to its advertisers?


Continue Reading Can You Be Forced to Get Your Halloween Scares From a Billboard?

Q:  For some 10 years now, I’ve been trying to penetrate the 10 foot thick wall called “unsolicited.”  How do I get through it? I have no agent.

A:  We can answer your question, but frankly, you may not like what we’re going to say.  Unfortunately, that 10 foot thick wall is probably as old as the Great Wall of China and is equally as impenetrable.  For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of submitting a script to an individual, production company, studio or, god forbid, law firm only to have it returned to you with a letter classifying it as an “unsolicited submission,” we can give you a little background.


Continue Reading Q&A: Why Are Unsolicited Submissions Policies So Brutal? 2012/10

Q:  I’m a writer/director.  I wrote a script that’s getting some traction.  I obviously want to sell it but on one condition:  I have to direct the movie.  I don’t think anyone else can do it justice…  A producer just presented me with an option agreement.  In our conversations, he agreed that I could be the director.  In the option agreement, it says that in the event the project receives financing and if a few other conditions are met, I’ll be engaged to direct the film on a “pay or play” basis.  I know that “pay or play” is a good thing so does this mean the producer is essentially agreeing that I’m the director?

A:  When I first started practicing entertainment law, I believed the term “Pay or Play” referred to the next hot NBC primetime game show, which I assumed would be hosted by Gallagher.  Fortunately for all of us, it’s not.  However, I’ve found that while it is a very commonly used contract term, and everyone wants it in their agreements, there is (as evidenced by your question) some confusion about the full extent of its implications.


Continue Reading Q&A: Does Being “Pay or Play” Mean I Get to Direct My Movie?

Sure, most of America might be abuzz about how poor NFL refereeing definitelymay or may not have swung the outcome of this week’s showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football.  But this week, the NFL doesn’t have a monopoly on sports-and-games fairness scandals (even if its scandals might have the most effect on Vegas betting linesand home fantasy football leagues everywhere).  That’s because of a new case that will surely rock the (narrow, quirky, cloistered) world of game show and trivia nerds everywhere.

So here’s a trivia question for you:  what happens when producers of a game show tell two contestants there will be no trick questions on the show, and then throw something that might be considered a “trick question,” causing those contestants to blow $580,000 in potential winnings?  Do the contestants:

(A)  Quietly retreat to their homes and try never to look at the chain of excoriating comments on the YouTube video of their defeat.

(B)  Launch an inspiring grassroots campaign on the Internet to get a second run on the show.

(C)  Reevaluate their personal choices and embrace new lives of monastic asceticism, untempted by the siren’s call of game show winnings.

(D)  Sue.

If you guessed D, congratulations!  You win…the rest of this article.  So can two contestants who lost it all on TV win it back in the courtroom?

Before we answer that question, you must understand:  I’m a particularly qualified expert to opine on this subject.  Sure, the law degree is nice, but lots of people have those.  I, on the other hand, have particular insight on the question of what happens when you, oh, I don’t know, lose a half-million dollars in winnings (give or take) in the span of about 4 minutes in front of a national network primetime audience.  So I think these plaintiffs can take it from me when I say, Run from this lawsuit.  Run like the wind.


Continue Reading This Week’s Other Sports/Game Rules and Officiating Scandal 2012/09

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?


Continue Reading Panties: 1, Fair Use Doctrine: 0

Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream has always been a company with a sense of humor.  As Ben & Jerry’s spokesman Sean Greenwood says, “We just do fun.”  With flavors like “Chubby Hubby,” “Cherry Garcia,” “Phish Food,” and “Imagine Whirled Peace,” who could disagree?  At times, the company has even been accused of having a little too much fun.  Some of its racier-named flavors include “Karamel Sutra,” and, of course, the controversial “Schweddy Balls.”  The latter flavor was inspired by an Alec Baldwin SNL skit and opposed by groups like One Million Moms, which said, “[t]he vulgar new flavor has turned something as innocent as ice cream into something repulsive.”

schweddy_ballsPerhaps attracted to the scent of something innocent and pure being defiled, a North Hollywood pornographer called “Caballero Video,” recently released some stomach-churning titles under the moniker, “Ben & Cherry’s.”  The pornographer’s lascivious exploits include:  Harry Garcia (Cherry Garcia); Boston Cream Thigh (Boston Cream Pie); Chocolate Fudge Babes (Chocolate Fudge Brownie); New York Super Fat & Chunky (New York Super Fudge Chunk); and Peanut Butter D-Cups (Peanut Butter Cup).  The complete list of saucy titles (including those too racy for even this blog to reprint) is available in this court order.  And of course, pictures of the films’ bawdy packaging that couples the traditional pastoral Ben & Jerry’s theme with NSFW pictures are available for those who “have learned to work the Google on the Internet machine.” (Note:  That link points to the IMDB page for Blades of Glory, not pornography.  What kind of blog do you think this is?)

Now, Ben & Jerry’s has filed suit in New York federal court against Caballero Video, alleging federal trademark dilution, federal trade dress dilution, federal trademark infringement, federal trade dress infringement, federal unfair competition, common law unfair competition, dilution and injury to business reputation, and deceptive trade practices.  The Court has already issued a temporary restraining order, ordering Caballero Video to stop offering the 10 allegedly infringing titles, remove all online mention of the X-rated films, and stop using the trademarked Ben & Jerry’s packaging — at least until a final decision is rendered in the case.

But did the Court err in issuing the temporary restraining order?

 
Continue Reading As the Ice Cream (and Stomach) Churns

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.


Continue Reading Why Celebrities Who Don’t Want to Live in California Might Still Want to Die There

 Q: A producer has offered to option my script.  I’m just starting out so the numbers are pretty low (it’s a 12 month option for $1,000 with a purchase price of the WGA scale).  I’m cool with that but have one problem with it:  what happens if she turns around and sells the option to a studio for a lot of money?  I think that’s what she plans to do.

A:  Pat yourself on the back, my friend.  You just spotted an issue that is often overlooked in standard option agreements.  To answer this, let’s talk a little background.


Continue Reading Q&A: How Do I Protect Myself From a Producer Flipping My Script?