James Dean crashed his Porsche and died nearly 60 years ago, but the “Rebel Without a Cause” star is still causing trouble today — this time over social media. A recent lawsuit in Indiana pits the licensing company CMG against Twitter and an unknown rebel who runs the @JamesDean account.
The @JamesDean account, which began in 2009 and now has over 8,000 followers, is a fan tribute that offers facts, quotes and pictures. Here’s a sample screenshot from a year ago:
The licensing company now wants to put a stop to all this. In its complaint, via the Hollywood Reporter, CMG demands that Twitter identify whoever is behind @JamesDean. The company also makes a laundry list of civil and criminal complaints, including trademark infringement and conversion.
So far, Twitter is refusing to play ball. In response to an email complaint from CMG last year, Twitter wrote: “We’ve researched the reported account and determined that it is not in violation of Twitter’s Trademark Policy. The account is not being used in a way that is misleading or confusing with regard to its brand, location or business affiliation.”
This “no harm, no foul” approach is how Twitter has applied its impersonation and trademark policies in general. So far, the company has given wide latitude to users who want to use famous names and icons for parody or tribute — or just to add some personality to their accounts. Indeed, some journalists I follow on Twitter use avatars you might recognize:
Wikipedia page du jour: A list of all the Royal Navy ships named HMS Africa http://t.co/Xgzozkaz8a
— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) February 7, 2014
We have always been at war with Windows 8.
— The real Jon Brodkin (@jbrodkin) February 10, 2014
— Jacob Weisberg (@jacobwe) February 9, 2014
The new James Dean lawsuit, then, will test Twitter’s ability to rely on its own sense of fair play, and the use of blue “verified” check marks, to resolve intellectual property disputes.
More broadly, the case is another example of the problems of assigning perpetual monopolies on long-dead cultural figures. Specifically, CMG’s attempt to control James Dean is reminiscent of the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s heirs have tried to wring more money from his estate, or of the public’s fight to use Sherlock Holmes.
The difference, however, is that the James Dean case doesn’t turn on copyright law, but instead on other legal theories like trademark and state “right of personality” laws. The latter concept is especially problematic since states like New York don’t have a “right of personality” for dead people in the first place. But CMG’s home state of Indiana offers posthumous personality rights of 100 years — which is good news for licensing companies, but potentially bad news for free speech and cultural expression.
You can find more details in the lawsuit below: