What What, Fair Use on a 12(b)(6)?

June 8, 2012

“What what, in the butt?” was the question recently before justices Easterbrook, Cudahy and Hamilton in the appeal of Brownmark Films LLC v. Comedy Partners from the Eastern District of Wisconsin. (Opinion)  At issue was whether South Park’s interpretation of Samwell’s “What What In The Butt,” as performed by Butters in the episode “Canada on Strike,” was non-infringing fair use under 17 U.S.C. § 107.  More interestingly, though, was that Comedy Partners raised the defense on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss – without any discovery or opportunity therefor (see FRCP 56(d), formerly Rule 56(f)).  The Eastern District of Wisconsin agreed that South Parks’ rendition of What What In the Butt was fair use, and dismissed the Complaint at the pleading stage.

Brownmark did not include the original What What In the Butt video, nor South Park’s adaptation, in its Complaint.  South Park Digital Studios did, however, attach both videos to its motion to dismiss, relying on the incorporation by reference doctrine.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit resolved this issue in South Park’s favor:

Because the claim was limited to the production and distribution of a single episode, the district court was correct to rely solely on the two expressive works referenced in Brownmark’s amended complaint and attached to SPDS’s motion, as well as the allegations in the complaint, to decide on the fair use defense.

SPDS relies on the incorporation-by-reference doctrine to maintain that reliance on the attached works does not violate Rule 12(d), which requires that Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c) motions containing materials outside of the pleadings be converted into motions for summary judgment. It is well settled that in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider “documents attached to a motion to dismiss . . . if they are referred to in the plain- tiff’s complaint and are central to his claim.” Wright v. Assoc. Ins. Cos. Inc., 29 F.3d 1244, 1248 (7th Cir. 1994). In effect, the incorporation-by-reference doctrine provides that if a plaintiff mentions a document in his complaint, the defendant may then submit the document to the court without converting defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion to a motion for summary judgment. The doctrine prevents a plaintiff from “evad[ing] dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) simply by failing to attach to his complaint a document that prove[s] his claim has no merit.” Tierney v. Vahle, 304 F.3d 734, 738 (7th Cir. 2002). (Op. at 5)

But the Seventh Circuit noted a curious wrinkle to this analysis:

While the application of this doctrine to the present case would seem to allow SPDS’s action, no court of appeals has ruled that the content of television programs and similar works may be incorporated by reference. Several district courts have concluded that the doctrine does apply to such works. See, e.g., Burnett v. Twentieth Century Fox, 491 F. Supp. 2d 962, 966 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Zella v. E.W. Scripps Co., 529 F. Supp. 2d 1124, 1131-32 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Daly v. Viacom, 238 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1121-22 (N.D. Cal. 2002). And we think it makes eminently good sense to extend the doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works. The parties, however, did not brief this issue, and so we reserve the resolution of the question for a later date. (Op. at 5-6)

Ultimately finding that the Eastern District of Wisconsin was within its jurisdiction to grant dismissal, the appellate court engages in a relatively truncated fair use analysis under the four factors of 17 U.S.C. § 107.  The reason for the brevity?

Since Brownmark never opposed SPDS’s fair use argument in the district court, we consider the argument waived. (Op. at 9)

Ouch.  And, since it’s the Seventh Circuit, that means automatically shifting attorney’s fees and costs under 17 U.S.C. § 505.  What What In the Butt, Indeed.

Perhaps the overlooked gem of this opinion is that the Seventh Circuit has forever enshrined my favorite South Park meme: Internet Money.

The South Park Elementary school boys—Cartman, Stan, Kyle and But- ters—decide to create a viral video in order to accrue enough “Internet money” to buy off the striking Canadians. The boys create a video, “What What (In The Butt),” (WWITB) in which Butters sings a paean to anal sex. Within the show, the video is a huge hit, but the boys are only able to earn “theoretical dollars.”

As the South Park episode aptly points out, there is no “Internet money” for the video itself on YouTube, only advertising dollars that correlate with the number of views the video has had. It seems to this court that SPDS’s likely effect, ironically, would only increase ad revenue. Any effect on the derivative market for criticism is not protectable. Id. at 592. And the plaintiff has failed to give the district court or this court any concrete suggestion about potential evidence indicat- ing that the South Park parody has cut into any real market (with real, non-Internet dollars) for derivative uses of the original WWITB video. (Op.)

Of course, when I use “Internet Money,” it refers to settlements from BitTorrent infringers and others who pay for their wrongdoing.  But, it is evocative of the constant challenge of monetizing the digital ether of the World Wide Web.


Bieber Bang Bus Presents

March 6, 2012

Dan Snyder is butthurt, SLAPP suit ensues, Irony meter pegged

February 6, 2011

By Marc J. Randazza

Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, seems to have awfully thin skin for a guy who owns a sports team named after a racial insult.

Snyder filed a frivolous defamation suit against the Washington City Paper (“WCP”) based upon an article “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.”

Snyder accuses the WCP of spreading “lies, half-truths, innuendo, and anti-Semitic imagery” to defame him, seeking $2 million in damages.  The amount is split between two claims, the first for defamation and the second for false light.  The “anti-semitic imagery” he complains of is a crude addition of horns, a unibrow and Anton LaVey-esque goatee to Snyder’s photograph in the WCP, which can be seen here.

No, your irony meter is not broken. It is actually reading 11. A guy who owns the Washington Redskins is complaining that someone created an allegedly racist drawing of him. And, anyone who thinks that “Washington Redskins” isn’t a bigoted term, I used to think the same thing. In law school, I was in a debate with a guy I’ll identify as “Steve B.” I was armed with my free-speech bona fides, and ready to pwn Steve in front of the whole class for being overly politically correct. With his opening shot, Steve looked at me and said “what would you think if they were called the ‘Washington Jigaboos?’ Because the way black people would feel about that is how Native Americans feel about ‘Redskins.'”

I immediately conceded. Steve was right. The debate was over.

Please re-calibrate your irony meters -- Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington *Redskins*; complains that this drawing is racist.

So, the owner of the Washington Jigaboos Redskins is pissy about someone supposedly using racist imagery.

On behalf of Native Americans, up yours, Dan Snyder. Up yours with a cactus grown in the driest part of the Navajo reservation.

But lets get back to the issue at hand:

Dave McKenna’s comprehensive compendium on Snyder’s questionable reputation, which gave rise to this lawsuit, is not the first time he offended Snyder’s sensibilities.  Snyder paints a paranoid picture of McKenna as a conspirator, evidenced in his November 24, 2010 letter to the WCP – sent less than a week after McKenna’s article hit the streets.  Because McKenna mentioned Snyder within the WCP and its blog 15 times in as many months, Snyder believed McKenna was attacking him to please his new bosses at Atalaya Capital, which acquired Creative Loafing and the WCP in August 2009. (source.)

Even so, it appears McKenna gave Snyder a fair shake.  Before McKenna’s article was published, Snyder’s wife went to the local media to defend her husband.  In an interview, she said her husband was now surrounded by ‘better people,’ and that he had ‘grown and he’s evolved.’ (source.)  The offending article even begins with the words “[w]e’ve been told a New Dan Snyder walks among us”!

Nevertheless, lets not forget that Dan Snyder is a wealthy man. He is a fabulously wealthy man. And we all know that the fabulously wealthy often believe that they are above being criticized by the rabble — and when the rabble forgets it, they need only spread their ass cheeks, let a few filthy pieces of silver fall from their milk-fed buttholes, and some swine of a lawyer will be lying underneath, mouth agape, happy to catch what might dribble from the sphincter of privilege — their oath, their ethics, and free speech be damned.

In nicer words, this is a classic SLAPP suit — not filed because it has a chance of success — but filed because the cost of defending it will be punitive enough to remind the little people that people who can afford to use helicopters as personal transportation vehicles do not like to be made fun of or criticized.

The first sign that this is a SLAPP suit? You need go no further than paragraph 1. The complaint states “Mr. Snyder is a public figure. As such, he accepts the right of the public and the press to criticize him or to express personal dislike, whether or not such expressions are justified by the facts.”

Precisely.

In other words, Mr. Snyder is going to need to leap over the “actual malice” standard laid down in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). In that case, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment required that a public official libel plaintiff must establish, through clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant acted out of “actual malice.” That doesn’t mean that the writer must have acted out of malicious intent, but rather that the defendant published his words “with knowledge that it was actually false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Later cases expanded this to encompass defamation suits by public figures, as well as public officials. See, e.g, Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967); Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974).

Public figures can, occasionally, prevail under this standard. However, the bar is so high that unless the case is flawless, it is unlikely to go anywhere except down the “expensive to defend” highway. Snyder knows this. His attorneys know this. But Snyder is a wealthy man, and his lawyers don’t mind the taste of feces in their mouths, as long as they are licking the foul substance off of Snyder’s coins.

Lets take a look at Snyder’s claims under New York law. New York is very protective of free speech — especially where the news media is concerned. What constitutes a statement of opinion is broad, and can even embrace language that in other states may be defamation per se, such as calling another person “unprofessional.”  See Amodei v. New York State Chiropractic Association, 160 A.D.2d 279, 280 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 2d Dept. 1990), aff’d 571 N.E.2d 79 (N.Y. 1991); Halegoua v. Doyle, 171 Misc. 2d 986, 991 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1997); Wait v. Beck’s North America, Incorporated, 241 F. Supp 2d 172, 183 (N.D.N.Y. 2003). (“Statements that someone has acted unprofessionally or unethically generally are constitutionally protected statements of opinion.”).

Despite Snyder’s melodramatic whining about McKenna’s negative opinion of him, even incendiary and inflammatory criticism of a subject is protected rhetorical hyperbole. See Greenbelt Coop. Pub. Ass’n v. Bresler, 893 U.S. 6, 14 (1970); Gross v. N.Y. Times Co., 623 N.E.2d 1163, 1167 and 1169 (N.Y. 1993). Even heavily caustic attacks on public figures are afforded the highest level of Constitutional protection. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 52 (1988).

The second cause of action is a bit trickier.  While the language reads like a false light claim, there’s a wrinkle here: According to the Citizen Media Law Project, New York doesn’t recognize the tort of false light. Costanza v. Seinfeld, 27 Media L. Rep. 2177 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1999), aff’d, 719 N.Y.S.2d 29 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001); Howell v. New York Post Co., 21 Media L. Rep. 1273 (N.Y. 1993)  That leaves Snyder with the tort of defamation by implication, which remains a form of defamation and thus subject to the same attacks set forth in the preceding paragraph.

Nonetheless, as the owner of the Redskins, Snyder has access to lawyers and the money to pay for them, and can inflict quite a lot of pain onto the defendants. Furthermore, even if the WCP fends off these claims, Snyder has made it clear that anyone smaller than the WCP had better be worried — criticizing him is not without its significant costs.

Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation. We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.” (source)

Snyder appears more butthurt than genuinely wronged. Unfortunately for him, or fortunately for us all, there still is no cause of action in the United States for intentionally butthurting a rich dude. Unfortunately for us all, win or lose, Snyder and his legal team just turned blew a cold wind across the free expression fruited plain.

J. Malcom DeVoy contributed to this post. Hat tip to Johnny Utah.


Streisand 101

January 5, 2010

by Jason Fischer

In an effort (I’m assuming) to be hip and relevant, my alma mater (and Randazza’s previous teaching gig) has begun adding courses to their curriculum that have little to do with the law or lawyering.  One example is a course called “Popular Culture and the Law,” to which the registrar has assigned the following course description:

This 2 hour seminar will examine social attitudes toward law, lawyers, and legal institutions through the viewing and examination of Hollywood films.  Film depictions of law students, juries, and judges will also be considered.  Each seminar session will focus in as much depth as possible on a particular film or films and a particular problem or aspect of law, law practice, ethics, or the image and status of the lawyer in American culture raised by the film(s).  The majority of the films will be viewed outside the classroom and will be considered as texts providing contemporary depictions of the subject matter to be examined in class.  In addition, readings will be assigned for each film and will form the basis for class discussion.  The films will be reserved in the library.  This will be a paper course which may be used to satisfy the Upper Level Writing Requirement.

legally_blondeMy understanding is that this course is just another excuse for chicks in law school to watch Legally Blonde (2001) for the 4,821st time.  What a great way to spend your tuition dollars at a professional school!

Normally, I’m not the one in this forum to bitch about the state of legal education.  Marco & Co. do it regularly enough that I don’t have to.  (See here, here, and here.)  On the whole, my law school experience was a good one.  I took as much advantage of our externship program as I could, and I went out of my way to take classes from adjunct professors who I knew actually practiced what they were preaching.  What I object to is courses that have students watch reruns of “L.A. Law” (1986), or other fictional portrayals, as a means for teaching about the practice of law.  Aren’t there other subjects that could be presented that have more merit?

Fuck_barbara_is_that_your_faceOne subject jumps quickly to my mind, and regular readers of this blog will recognize it immediately.  I would call it “Streisand 101,” taking its name from actress and singer, Barbara Streisand, who effectively demonstrated that simply filing a lawsuit can bring about the exact opposite result from what you hoped to achieve.  It would be a skills course, aimed at training young lawyers to talk their clients down from filing certain kinds of lawsuits — the kind that end up splashed all over blogs like this one, fueling negative publicity for the client.  The intent would be to teach how to 1) determine the unintended consequences of a particular cause of action; and 2) effectively communicate those consequences to the client, giving them the opportunity to back away before doing any real damage.  The primary pedagogical tools would be roll playing and reviewing news stories about past P.R. blunders.

Finding great teaching examples would be about as challenging as falling off of a log.  Just this week, outdoor clothing maker, The North Face (TNF), is in the news again, moving forward with their lawsuit against The South Butt (TSB).  (You can find my previous coverage of the case here.)  Before TNF filed their lawsuit, TSB had a whopping $5,000 in gross sales — after months of being in business.  Now, TSB’s selling that much every hour.  Their attorney claims that, with 14 new employees, TSB has created more jobs in its home state than the Obama’s $800 billion stimulus plan.  (Source.)

The only downside that I see to so educating the next crop of attorneys is that a huge source of entertainment will be snuffed out.  What will we read about for fun when Micheal Jordan’s attorney convinces him not to sue the people who congratulate him?


Fox News Porn – Fair Use Orgy!

February 26, 2008

This is going to be a fun election for intellectual property wonks. We’ve already seen the Clash of the Anti-Hillaristas!

Now, Fox News finds itself in a fair use maelstrom.

In an effort to criticize the network that brought us eight years of darkness, an anonymous webmaster has created the Fox News Porn website. Apparently the webmaster has detected higher than normal levels of T&A on Fox News.

One of the links brings you to Fox Attacks, a blog that seems to be devoted to tearing down the Fox Network.

Disclaimer, I do occasional legal commentary on Fox. Nevertheless, I don’t allow that to bias my opinion of the network. I do think that Fox is open to plenty of honest criticism, but I find this kind of attack to be more than a little dishonest. Every network dishes up the skin. If these people have a beef with Fox’s content and political leanings, so be it. That is the arena in which they should take on Fox – not some faux morality crusade.

This kind of shrieking is far too reminiscent of the McCarthy-like tactics employed by the religious right.

Lets sit on the sidelines and see if Mr. Murdoch takes the criticism, or if this winds up being a really interesting intellectual property case. The site clearly uses the Fox News logo (trademark infringement) and clearly uses Fox’s copyrighted materials. However, I’m certain that if Fox attempted to bring a claim for either one, the fair use defense would obliterate the claims.


Clash of the Anti-Hillaristas

February 13, 2008

It is always funny when rival political factions get into trademark disputes instead of letting their ideas compete in the marketplace. That usually happens with opposing political factions. See, e.g., Hypocrites for Community Values Lose Round One.

In a new twist, we see two groups with a common interest in a trademark spat.

Apparently the world just ain’t big ’nuff for two anti-Hillary groups.

Read the rest of this entry »


Attorney General Nominee Mukasey on Trademarks and the First Amendment

September 17, 2007

In doing some research on the new Attorney General nominee, I discovered that he was the judge who penned the opinion in Tommy Hilfiger v. Nature Labs, LLC, 221 F. Supp. 2d 410 (S.D.N.Y. 2002).

In that case, Nature Labs produced a line of “pet perfumes” whose names parodied some of the higher-end human smell-good products. Judge Mukasey wrote a well-reasoned, thoughtful, and funny (as far as a trademark opinion can be funny) opinion.

Read the rest of this entry »


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