Gossip blogger Perez Hilton is being sued by Universal Studios for copyright infringement after he posted a topless photograph of Jennifer Aniston on his popular blog.
The photo, which was from the movie “The Break Up“, never made it to the final movie as it was cut out in post production. Universal is claiming that the photo was “stolen” by Perez and is suing for unspecified damages.
There appears to be some disagreement about whether or not Hilton removed the photo in a prompt fashion. According to paragraph 13 of the original complaint, Universal both emailed and snail mailed the cease and desist notice to Hilton on February 6. According to Universal’s attorneys, they only filed suit after both were ignored.
Hilton’s lawyer, however, said the letter ended up in Arizona and that Hilton never received the notice. According to him, once Hilton learned of the complaint, the content was removed.
There is some suspicion on Hilton’s part that the lawsuit stems less from the alleged copyright violations and more from his bashing of Aniston on his blog. There, Hilton frequently refers to Aniston as “Maniston” and pokes fun at her regularly.
Hilton, at this time, has had no comment on the matter as he says he has not been severed with the lawsuit, a process that could take several days or weeks.
Issues For Webmasters
There are several issues in this case that pertain directly to Webmasters, both in terms of protecting their content and handling infringement, especially by users, on their site.
- The Missing Cease and Desist: If Universal is being honest about having sent the letter and Hilton is being honest about not getting it, then the question becomes this: What happened? The whois information for the domain points to Los Angeles, where Hilton is located, and his email is easily found on the site. What could cause such a fundamental breakdown in communication?
- The Lack of a DMCA: Universal, for whatever reason, decided to not send a DMCA to get the image taken down. It could be a sign that they were looking to sue Hilton and didn’t want the work removed prematurely or that they felt the cease and desist would be more effective. Why they chose this route will be a case study for some time to come.
- Fair Use and Parody Arguments: Contrary to my prior predictions, it appears that Hilton is going to stand his ground and try to fight these lawsuits, possibly to his detriment. He is claiming that he has a fair use right to use the photos as his intent is to parody and lampoon. Whether or not his arguments succeed could have a great impact on how bloggers and Webmasters reuse content.
These cases, much like the Michael Crook case, will likely have a lasting impact on how content is shared and reused on the Web. Anyone with an interest in content-related issues should be following them closely.
Needless to say, I will be and I will be posting updates on this site.
Many bloggers do what Perez Hilton does. Most never receive as much as a cease and desist letter, let alone a lawsuit.
Hilton’s difference is two fold. First, through his blog, he has made a large amount of money. This makes him an easy target since companies can justify the expense of going after him.
Second, he has earned the ire of copyright holders not only through his jokes and insults, but also through his flaunting of the law and his unwillingness to offer even basic attribution. He has made a good living off of other’s work, but has not even paid a token price in return.
Also, if X17 is being honest, he has also repeatedly ignored cease and desist letters shunned attempts to reach amicable agreements, instead hiding behind “fair use” to justify his actions.
Sadly for Perez, his use is anything but fair. Though there is clearly some attempt at parody, his use is not transformative. The photos play the same role that the originals were designed to.
What’s frustrating is that these cases will likely become precedent for future copyright law cases on the Web. If Perez wins, fair use would likely be expanded to the point that copyright law would almost be meaningless. If the companies win, it’s likely that the language could farther narrow the fair use provision by adding more definition to it.
In short, no one wins.
I hope that this is not the case, but that appears to be where things are heading right now.