Keeping Abreast of the News

A TV station here in the Washington, D.C., area has been making national headlines by taking the "mal" out of "wardrobe malfunction." I'm talking about WJLA-TV's breast cancer awareness report it dubbed "Touch of Life"—news story broadcasts that featured women's bare breasts without pixilation, black bars, or other means of obscuring the body parts that typically get the FCC in an uproar. It's a first for Washington broadcast television...if you don't count Janet Jackson's Superbowl halftime show.

WJLA has answered its critics by saying this is not simply a ratings stunt but, rather, it did this because breast self-examination is a vitally important, life-saving piece of information that all women need to know. I can't argue with that. But wasn't it also a vitally important piece of information before the autumn sweeps ratings period began?

Be that as it may, so far I've heard nothing from the FCC about this breast baring broadcast, despite the agency's supposed crackdowns on such things in recent years.

A Big Blow to Fairey's Case

Shepard Fairey, the artist who got embroiled in a lawsuit with the Associated Press over his artistic modification of an A.P. photo, in which he created the now famous Barack Obama "Hope" poster, has suffered a huge blow to his much publicized case. According to news reports, Fairey has now admitted that he falsified information about which photo he used as the model for the poster, and he also admitted to destroying some evidence. The result: Fairey's suit against the A.P. could be in a shambles, and, because they were lied to by their client, his lawyers have quit.

Fairey's iconic poster of then presidential candidate Obama drew almost immediate protests from the A.P., which claims it never gave the artist permission to make a derivative work of its copyright protected photograph. In what was supposed to be a prophylactic measure, Fairey sued the A.P., claiming he was entitled to use the photo under copyright law's "fair use doctrine." The A.P. countersued, and then the photographer who actually took the photo got into the mix claiming that he, and not the A.P., actually owned the copyright.

It's not certain whether Fairey will continue his suit against the A.P. But the A.P., now with a stronger case, is likely to continue its suit against Fairey.

Another Blow to Stalin's Rep

In the United States, it's often said you can't defame the dead. Libel suits on behalf of a deceased's besmirched reputation typically get tossed out of court. But, apparently, the law works differently in Russia.

According to the Associated Press, Josef Stalin's grandson sued for libel over a newspaper article that said the former Soviet leader was a "bloodthirsty cannibal" who sent thousands to their deaths. The report said a Russian court ruled against the grandson, who was seeking a retraction, and apology, and montetary damages. But it didn't say the court threw out the case on a technicality — such as it being improper to sue for libel over the damaged rep of a dead relative. Gets me thinking that perhaps such suits are allowed over there.

Defamation is a very sticky area for artists who employ the names and likenesses of real people — living or dead — into their art. And, while it's not actionable here to sue for defamation on behalf of the dead, people have been known to sue on their own behalf for the emotional distress caused to them by the damage someone has done to a deceased relative's public image. That's why I always advise people to be extra cautious when incorporating real people into their art. Even if you end up winning the case, it's no fun to be sued.

Pitch or Crime

If you're you're like me, and you're keeping tabs on the David Letterman sex scandal, you just can't help but scratch your head over the potential defense that seems to be hinted at by the lawyer of the man accused of trying to blackmail the late night comedian. If I'm understanding correctly, Robert (Joe) Halderman's defense against the extortion charges might be that he was actually just pitching the idea of a screenplay to Letterman.

Hmmm...Now let me get this straight...If I write a treatment for a tell-all movie, the person I'd expect would most want to produce the movie would be the individual for whom the film would cause embarrassment and family turmoil.

Um...if you say so, Joe. I guess that'll be for others to decide.

Just to be clear, if you've got an idea for a movie—even one that would be highly embarrassing for the subject—you're free to pitch the idea anywhere you like. Assuming that you've got the facts to back up what you're revealing, a tell-all movie, book, etc., is protected under the First Amendment. However, extortion isn't protected free speech. So you can't legally go to the subject of the work and offer to keep it under wraps if the subject pays you off.

Better Late than Nevermore

The city of Baltimore is saying good-bye to a long-gone favorite, albeit possibly disturbing, son. This weekend, in commemoration of his 200th birthday year, the city is holding a funeral for that master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, who died of uncertain causes in Baltimore in 1849. When Poe was buried back then, reports say fewer than ten people were at his funeral. The city is expecting hundreds to be in attendance for the ceremonies this Sunday, which will take place in the former church that's next to Poe's burial spot.

In addition to being credited with basically inventing the detective story ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), for which those of us who enjoy a mixture or art and law will always be grateful, Poe also left something of a legal issue after his death.

Shortly after he was buried, Poe's long-time rival, Rufus Griswold, became his literary executor. To this day there's still a question over whether Poe appointed Griswold to the position or whether Griswold attained it through tricks or treachery. Whatever it was, it seems Poe's heirs didn't get much from Griswold's posthumous publication of Poe's works.

The lesson for the artist: don't forget your intellectual property when you're doing estate planning. You won't be around to look after your art when you're gone. Better to appoint someone who'll look after it in a way that you'd approve.