Friday, December 5, 2014

The Cassady to Kerouac Letter - A Fascinating Legal Battle

A fascinating legal battle is shaping up regarding the ownership of "The Joan Anderson Letter", a December 17, 1950 letter written by Beat prototype Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. The letter's value stems from its stream-of-consciousness style - which is generally accepted to have served as the template for Kerouac's 1957 book "On the Road" - the Bible of the Beatnik movement.

Cassady wrote the letter and sent it to Kerouac.  Sometime in 1951 or 1952, Kerouac gave the letter to his friend and fellow author, Allen Ginsberg. The provenance of the letter thereafter is a mystery, and it was long considered lost to the ages. Then, in 2011, the letter was found among the papers of Los Angeles record producer Jack Spinosa. His daughter Jean found it, and after spending several years authenticating it, has now offered it for auction.

Which brings us to the cast of claimants for the letter. The estate of the letter's author, Neal Cassady, claims that the copyright in the letter is the property of the Estate.  The Estate of Jack Kerouac claims the letter, presumably on the grounds that by sending it to Kerouac, Cassady transferred any ownership rights to Kerouac. And the Estate of Jack Spinosa claims the letter, on the grounds that Mr. Spinosa apparently came into valid ownership of it sometime after Kerouac gave it to Ginsberg.  As the finder of lost property, Jean Spinosa can claim the letter under the doctrine that the finder of lost property is entitled to a superior claim of ownership against everyone other than the true owner, whom in this case she will likely claim is her father.

Historians of the Beat era don't have a horse in this race, but are anxiously standing by to see who ends up with ownership of the letter, in the hopes that the new owner will either donate it to a museum or archive, or otherwise make it available for review and use by scholars. 

As for me, it looks like a great law school exam problem! Keep your eyes on this one - some new law may come out of it as to ownership of this kind of intellectual property.

Monday, June 30, 2014

I'm Back with a New Book, Law Firm and More!

I'm Back! It's been two years since my last blog post here - why so long?...I've been busy! 

Over the past two years, I've

  1. Taught two semesters as a visiting professor at William Boyd School of Law, at the University of Nevada - Los Vegas (teaching property law and cyberlaw); and 
  2. Joined a newly formed law firm, Sycamore Legal, P.C., based in San Francisco, as an attorney of counsel. This gives me a great new platform to work with clients on matters dealing with both transactions and litigation in high-tech, business start-ups, content licensing, entertainment, copyright, trademark and real estate law. To find out more about the firm, check out; and to contact me there, email; and
  3. I've written a book! My book, Comic Art, Creativity and the Law, has just been published by Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, a U.K. based textbook publisher. The book, which features original cover art by noted graphic artist Darick Robertson, examines the impact of contract law, copyright law, tax law and obscenity law on the creative process as applied to comic art. It discusses a variety of cases involving comic art, ranging from the copyright termination rights battles over Superman and many of the characters in the Marvel Universe (the Siegel and Shuster v. D.C. cases, and the Kirby v. Marvel case), to the parody cases involving the Winter Brothers and the Air Pirates comic books. 

The hard copy version will be released in the U.S. in August. The European version is available on the Elgar website at slightly over $100, the hardback is targeted primarily to the library and other institutions market. A much more reasonably priced version ($40), as an ebook, is available at 

My thanks to everyone who helped with the book, particularly series editors Shubha Ghosh and Robin Malloy, and endorsement writers Justin Hughes, Mark Lemley, Peter Yu and Rob Salkowitz. 

With all of this work done, it's time to return to blogging! And there is much to write about, with new SCOTUS decisions in copyright and related fields, and much more. I am also getting ready to return to San Diego for the International Comic-Con, where I'll be speaking on two panels - a Comic Arts Conference panel with Rob Salkowitz on Thursday morning; and a return to the Comic Book Law School panel on Saturday morning.  Blog posts to follow - stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Comic-Con Ramblings Part 1 - Law School at the Con; Robot Chicken and the Parody/Satire Dichotomy

I.       Comic Book Law School - I've been attending comics conventions around the country for over a decade, and have spent the last five years speaking as a lawyer and scholar on the intersection of comics and the law. The past two years I have been a panelist on the hot topics panel portion of the three-day Comic Book Law School program presented at the San Diego International Comic-Con - billed as the largest such convention in the world. My friend and colleague, Beverly Hills IP attorney Michael Lovitz, does the pro bono service of offering this program to attendees (a mixed bag of lawyers, artists and fans) every year.

Each year I participate I am reminded that those of us in legal education, or in active practice representing relatively savvy clients in IP matters, tend to lose sight of how for many members of society, the basic principles of IP law are a mystery.  Popular myths are persistent (i.e.: you can obtain the legal protection of copyright by mailing a copy of the work to yourself), and there is often confusion as to what a copyright protects - the idea/expression dichotomy is a source of much confusion.

Given the increasing importance IP has in society, it may be worthwhile for colleges, and possibly high schools (yes, even in this cash-strapped time for public education), to offer training in basic IP law (copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret, unfair competition and right of publicity) in an array of concentration areas in their curriculum. IP issues are important in the Business Administration field;  in Computer Science;  in Political Science;  and in all aspects of arts education, ranging from music to film. Law schools and local bar associations should encourage faculty and IP practitioners to offer talks, lectures and classes in their areas of expertise, to shed much needed light about these subjects.

2.       Robot Chicken and the Parody/Satire dichotomy - Robot Chicken is a stop-motion animated television series created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, which airs as part of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming. The show makes me laugh often, and cringe occasionally. The creators and writers presented a hilarious panel at last week's Comic-Con.

The IMDb industry website characterizes the show's non-stop sketches as "satire", and the Wikipedia entry calls the program a "parody" show.  The reason for the confusion is that it offers a bit of both forms of content. Using toys, action figures and dolls, the sketches skewer pop culture in a broad array of contexts, from movies, to television, reality shows to comics. Celebrity voices add to the wicked sense of humor, with the celebrities often showing the good sense to participate in episodes that poke fun at themselves.

In between the intentionally juvenile barf and fart jokes can be found mordantly funny and sometimes dark or dry humor that parodies popular movies, television and related media, as well as sketches that satirize pop culture trends (the sketch which takes four popular children's toys in the My Little Pony series, and recasts them as the Four Ponies of the Apocalypse comes to mind). From a teaching standpoint, the show offers a great opportunity to illustrate the difference between parody and satire, as well as an opportunity to showcase the principle that the First Amendment exists not just to protect content we enjoy, but also material that we find offensive - as the content of this program is often likely to offend at least some, if not most, of its viewers at one point or another - no one and nothing is immune from its reach.

Of interest also is the fact that despite the sometimes very dark tone of its parodies and satires, the creators of Robot Chicken have not apparently been sued, neither for copyright infringement, nor a violation of rights of publicity, or of defamation (their parodies of Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan are particularly provocative). This may be, at least in part, due to what has become known as the Streisand effect - the idea that suing might bring more unwelcome attention to the defendant's conduct, and that the better tactic is to simply wait out the fifteen minutes of fame the parody will draw, before the fickle public and media moves on.

In my next Comic-Con related blog post,  I will address violence by fanatic fans at the Con, and I'll summarize the state of comics censorship and the ongoing work of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund...stay tuned till then.