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.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Notes on Alec Baldwin, Rights of Privacy and Publicity, Paparazzi, and Decency

Actor Alec Baldwin's been having a real up and down life recently - his career is hot due to his popular role on 30 Rock, and he's just married a woman who seems to have helped him turn his personal life and habits around. On the negative side, he's gotten into two well-publicized battles with paparazzi - consistent with conflict he has had with them for many years.

In one of the recent fights, Baldwin apparently got upset because paparazzi were blocking the street in front of his home waiting to photograph him, and when a neighbor complained to a photographer, she was cursed out by him. Baldwin interceded, and got the usual response that the pap had First Amendment rights to be on a public sidewalk to take photos of Baldwin.

The general rationales supporting paparazzi activity is that celebrities give up their right of privacy in exchange for their right of publicity, that celebrities have a public forum to discuss their unhappiness, and that the newsworthiness of obtaining photos of celebrities leaving Costco or Starbucks gives paparazzi the right to track and record the daily movements of their targets whenever they have the poor judgment to venture out into a public space, like a street.

This last point is usually framed as an argument that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy available to anyone in a public space. While stalking laws have been used to enforce celebrity rights to be free from stalkers entering their homes, or repeatedly calling or texting them, it takes a particularly egregious case to support a "distance injunction" preventing a photographer from being too close to a subject - see, e.g., the case of Jackie Kennedy Onassis versus Ron Galella, in which a court issued a stay away order directing him to stay 50 feet away from her and 75 feet away from her children.

While courts have repeatedly found that there is no right of privacy expectation in public space, this isn't really the point. The idea that your choice of occupation must be made at a cost of having your own personal space being constantly invaded, as well as that of your friends, family, and neighbors, just seems wrong to decent people. If privacy rights are not a valid means of addressing this, then we need to consider other remedies, perhaps sounding in tort for harassment, assault, or related offenses. Fine actors, politicians and others have been driven out of their chosen careers by this conduct. We as a society built on laws can do better than this, and we need to.