Advertising and Marketing

Legal and Ethical Considerations for Your True Crime Podcast

By Mikaela Gross

Imagine you’re sitting on the next big true crime hit. The nonfiction genre has ballooned in recent years across media, particularly in the podcasting space where production costs are relatively low and there are fewer gatekeepers to content distribution. Long gone are the days when the choice was among America’s Most Wanted, 20/20, Cold Case Files, and Unsolved Mysteries. The first seasons of the true crime podcast Criminal and the investigative journalism podcast Serial were released in 2014. Netflix’s first season of Making a Murderer came out in late 2015. The immediate popularity of these series was evident in their ratings, and they have been followed by rapid exponential growth in the true crime and investigative journalism entertainment space.

While true crime is often equal parts edge-of-your-seat entertainment and hard-hitting journalism, it’s important to remember that part of your job as a journalist is to stay within the bounds of the law and maintain a high level of ethical standards. Here are some tips for how to do so.

(1) Observe best journalistic practices in conducting research and investigations.

One of the easiest ways to stay on the right side of the law – most critically, to enjoy the full protection of your First Amendment right to speak freely – is to follow universal standards of ethics in journalism. If you don’t work for a large media organization that promulgates its own code of ethics, don’t worry. The Society of Professional Journalists publishes their Code of Ethics online, and several news organizations such as The New York Times also make their internal ethical guidelines available to the public.

In keeping with the high standards of journalistic ethics, here are some key suggestions (but by no means an exhaustive list) for investigating and reporting on your true crime story:

  • Be careful about making promises to, or developing personal relationships with, sources. Whether a source is asking to be off the record or for anonymity, or has an expectation or implies an expectation of a quid pro quo exchange such as a favorable portrayal, making promises to sources can quickly become tricky when later reporting your story. Personal relationships do develop over the course of cultivating a source, and whether by mere appearance or in fact, these dynamics can undermine your authority on a subject and imply a bias, depending on the circumstances. In every situation, maintaining professionalism will be key.
  • Don’t get involved in any formal investigation. Remember – you’re a journalist, not a member of the police force, the prosecution team, or any other public agency. Don’t offer rewards for information or make assurances to victims or families, or the public, that you will get to the bottom of it.
  • There is always more than one side to a story. If you expect to make accusations against any individual or company in the final story, ask them for comment. Protect your neutrality by always giving the “other side” the opportunity to counter any allegations or defend their actions.
  • Know your rights (and the legal limitations) when it comes to newsgathering. This includes access to private property, whether you can record conversations without every participant’s permission, when to disclose who you are and what you’re doing and engaging or citing anonymous sources (especially government employees), and more. These rules may vary by jurisdiction, and things can get even trickier when dealing with digital media or communications that cross state lines.

(2) Vet your material from development stage through production.

When talking about real people and actual events, especially when criminal activity is alleged, you should be wary of crossing the line in certain areas of law, such as defamation and the right to privacy, and in some instances copyright law and the right of publicity. Fact checking and legal vetting should be part of your process.

A defamation claim could arise if you make a false statement of fact about another person that injures their reputation, and you did so either negligently or with what’s known as “actual malice.” If the plaintiff is a private individual, you would only have to be negligent in making that statement, whereas if the plaintiff is a public figure you would be at fault if you made the false statement with “actual malice,” that is, knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth.

A false light claim could also arise (depending on the jurisdiction) if you widely make a statement that portrays a person in a “false light” that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The statement need not necessarily be a false statement of fact, but rather, create an implication, or inference, that is not true. In some ways this type of claim is similar to defamation, and they sometimes overlap, but it technically falls within the realm of privacy law. Note that reputational damage does not generally have to be proved under a false light claim – the harm caused here is emotional distress.

You could also face a claim for the publication of private facts, which is another type of privacy violation, if you publicly disclose a private fact about an individual that is offensive to a reasonable person, and the fact is not one of legitimate public concern. Unlike defamation and false light, there’s no requirement that the disclosure of information be false either in fact or in implication; rather, this sort of claim tends to arise when private information is made public that embarrasses the individual who is the subject of the statement. 

In addition, a right of publicity or misappropriation claim may arise if you use a person’s name, or identifiable features such as their likeness or voice, for commercial or other exploitative purpose. In most states, the ability to use a person’s name or likeness in expressive works such as films, books, and podcasts are protected by the First Amendment, and liability will not arise if the person’s name or likeness is also used in advertising for that expressive work provided it is truthful and therefore “incidental” to the protected expression. That said, the scope of right of publicity and misappropriation laws vary from state to state; for example, some states grant postmortem rights of publicity while others do not.

Finally, a copyright infringement claim could arise in a true crime story if you’re using third-party copyrighted materials without permission. You may need to consult an attorney for a fair use review of your podcast, in particular if the subject of your true crime story is or was an artist such as an author or musician, and you want to use their work in your story.

It’s a good idea to consult a lawyer early in the process when dealing with the type of risky subject matter typical of true crime stories, so you can avoid potentially costly or time-consuming changes later on in production. For starters, remember:

  • Just because you’re covering a high-profile case receiving attention across the media, and another media company (or five or ten) said something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. You generally won’t be protected from liability for defamation merely because you’re re-releasing information or materials first published by another source.
  • So too can copyright infringement liability arise from republication. Another project’s use of third-party material does not necessarily mean you’re free to use it, too.
  • If you’re digging back into a cold case, tread carefully when raising new facts and allegations, even against people implicated but never charged or convicted when the trail was still hot.

Be especially careful with secondary and tertiary figures in the story – in many cases, these minor figures are the ones who complain if they are portrayed in a negative light.

(3) Be creative (but not irresponsible!) with your advertising and promotional strategies.

It’s common for ads promoting a podcast to include snippets of statements and materials from one or more episodes in the series. In the promotional context, however, editing for duration and the addition of music or other sounds and materials can change the meaning or implication of a statement. In this way, you should be careful when promoting high-risk material and you may want to consult a lawyer to separately vet all marketing and advertising.

Similarly, additional copyright issues could arise if you’re using third-party copyrighted materials in the podcast and you want to use some of those materials in advertising. Do not assume the use in an ad is likely to qualify as fair use just because the use in the episode itself may be. The same considerations in the context of the content of the podcast do not necessarily apply to advertising for the series.

Finally, be careful what you agree to when entering sponsorship or other advertising deals. If a sponsor is asking for the right to use material from your story – including the names of individuals or snippets from episodes – to cross-promote their status as an official sponsor, be careful not to grant rights to use a person’s name and likeness that you do not have. A right of publicity claim could arise if you do.  

So be creative with promoting your hard-hitting story, but not so much so that you’re violating the law.

Jordan Victory Serves as Right of Publicity Cautionary Tale (Michael Jordan and Jump 23, Inc. v. Dominick’s Finer Foods, LLC and Safeway Inc.)

Michael Jordan’s recent right of publicity victory over former Chicago-area grocer Dominick’s Finer Foods suggests that the unauthorized use of a celebrity’s name or likeness may come at a price—in this case, $8.9 million.

In 2009, Sports Illustrated magazine published a commemorative issue recognizing Jordan’s athletic achievements and celebrating his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The magazine included congratulatory advertisements from several businesses, including Dominick’s. Continue reading

Fan, Foe or Free-Rider: CDAS Defeats Cybersquatter that Sought to Capitalize on Celebrity Client’s Famous Name

Case Highlights Benefits of Trademark Protection and Potential Risks in Posing as a Fan Online

A growing and unsettling trend in the legal field of domain name disputes is the prevalence of domain registration for bad faith purposes, such as to bait the public into thinking that there is an association between a website operator and a famous brand or person.  Recently, Cowan DeBaets Abraham & Sheppard LLP (“CDAS”) brought a complaint under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (“UDRP” or “The Policy”) which demonstrated the potential pitfalls of this trend. In Sofia Vergara v. Domain Administrator, Fundacion Private Whois / Domain Admin, Whois Privacy Corp. / Guy Bouchard, WIPO Case No. D2014-2008, Sofia Vergara (“Ms. Vergara”), represented by CDAS, prevailed before the World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”) Arbitration and Mediation Center, due to the demonstrated bad faith conduct of Fundacion Private Whois / Domain Admin, Whois Privacy Corp. / Guy Bouchard (collectively, Respondent) in their registration of the domain name www.sofiavergara.org (the “Domain Name”).

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Update: Michael Jordan’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Right of Publicity Claim Denied

This Blog is an Update to a Previous Post. To read the original post, please click here.

Jordan v. Jewel Food Stores, Inc., No. 10-c-340 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 2015)

Following the Seventh Circuit decision that permitted Jordan to proceed and allege violations under Illinois publicity law against the supermarket chain Jewel-Osco, Jordan moved for summary judgment as to defendant’s liability under his Illinois Right of Publicity Act (IRPA) claim.  The U.S. District Court of Illinois denied Jordan’s motion for summary judgment for failing to establish that the commemorative add served the commercial purpose. Continue reading

Sticks, Carrots and Copyrights

Affiliate Marketing Providers Held Not Vicariously Liable for Third-Party Partner’s Infringements

Last month, in Sandy Routt, d/b/a sandybeachgifts.com, d/b/a Sandys Beach v. Amazon.com, Inc., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed claims seeing to hold Amazon.com vicariously liable for the copyright and trademark infringing activities of its affiliate marketing partners.

Amazon.com maintains a program in which third party websites agree to display a widget that contains advertisements for Amazon products. Amazon controls the content of the widget and enters into an agreement with each third-party site that displays it. In this case, affiliate websites allegedly used Routt’s copyright-protected photographs and displayed those photographs on their websites next to Amazon’s widget.  Rather than bring the individual direct infringers to court, Routt asserted that Amazon’s agreement with their affiliates, combined with the fact that Amazon derived financial gain from the relationship, gives rise to vicarious liability for those third parties’ infringement. The Ninth Circuit disagreed. Continue reading

The Future of Video

Legal and Business Considerations

By Simon N. Pulman

Consumption of online video continues to grow at a rapid pace. Online video ad revenue is projected to reach nearly $5 billion in 2016, while premium streaming video distributors including Netflix, Hulu Plus and Yahoo are stepping up their licensing and commissioning of original content. Most industry observers believe that online video – notably to the extent consumed through mobile devices – is an important component in the future of the internet.

In order to capitalize upon the growth in online video, media companies (both traditional and emerging) are creating dedicated divisions aimed at developing and producing a full range of video content, ranging from micro-short form clips with strong potential for sharing via social media (e.g., Vine), to original series and even feature length motion pictures. Certain companies may also break away from traditional film and television formats to experiment with new forms of video and transmedia content.

In this new ecosystem, certain fundamental principles remain. Regardless of video format or distribution platforms, all innovative business practices must be built upon a strong foundation of legal experience, necessary due diligence and robust content production and distribution expertise. Nonetheless, there are a few business and legal issues that deserve special consideration by the next-generation video content company. Here are three issues to consider with respect to the future of video: Continue reading

Native Advertising Basics

Three Things to Know Before Going Native

By Simon N. Pulman

The use of “native advertising” online has grown at a considerable pace over the past two years, with some studies projecting that it could account for five billion dollars in spending by 2017 – far outpacing the growth of traditional online display ads. Such is the economic (and some might say creative) potential of native advertising that some companies such as Time Inc. have created dedicated departments to create and sell native ads across platforms including web, mobile and social media. HBO star John Oliver even devoted eleven minutes to the trend during a recent episode of his show “Last Week Tonight.”

Currently, no single definition for “native advertising” exists, and what constitutes native advertising is still up for debate among advertising executives, regulators and attorneys. However, native advertising may be most easily understood as online paid content that is published adjacent to, and is often created by the same publisher as, traditional editorial content (see some examples here). Native advertising can take the form of long-form journalism, video, images, infographics, games, top-10 style “listicles” and other content. While some native advertising is fairly simplistic and not far removed from traditional product placement, more progressive forms may seek to play off popular culture, educate a user about an issue, promote a cause or demonstrate a brand’s themes and values without engaging in any kind of “hard sell.” As a result, the best native advertising may be equally creative, well executed and valuable for the reader as truly independent editorial content. Continue reading

Judging a Juice by its Label

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in POM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company May Open the Lid to Lanham Act Liability Even Where Another Federal Statute May Apply

In POM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company, the US Supreme Court resolved much of the uncertainty surrounding the intersection of unfair competition claims under the Lanham Act relating to food labels and the strictures of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).  These two federal statutes cross paths in cases where a food or drink label is alleged to mislead the public.  POM, which grows pomegranates and manufactures pomegranate juices, brought unfair competition claims under the Lanham Act against Coca-Cola, alleging that one of Coke’s labels was false and misled consumers.  The label at issue named Coke’s product “Pomegranate Blueberry;” however, the drink only contained 0.3% pomegranate juice and only 0.2% blueberry juice – the majority was less-expensive apple and grape juice.  POM asserted that such labeling misled the public into buying a cheaper juice and thereby damaged POM, whose products actually contain high percentages of more expensive pomegranate juice. Continue reading

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies and Simplifies Standards for Ability to Bring Section 43(a) False Advertising Claims

High Court Resolves Circuit Split on “Prudential Standing” to Bring False Advertising Claims Under the Lanham Act:  Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., No. 12-873 (2014)

In what has become rare in recent years, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, this one deciding the proper test for what is often called “prudential” standing  to bring a false advertising claim under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a).  Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia considered the three different tests applied by the various circuit courts of appeal, and dismissed them all in favor of a standard reminiscent of law school torts class:   “To invoke the Lanham Act’s cause of action for false advertising, a plaintiff must plead (and ultimately prove) an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” Continue reading

FTC Issues New Guideline Report for Online and Mobile Advertising Disclaimers

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued new guidelines this week for media outlets, advertisers, brands, celebrity brand spokespeople and other parties advertising products online. The report, titled “.com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising,” builds upon the FTC’s previous report on digital marketing practices, issued in 2000. In addition to emphatically clarifying that the FTC’s jurisdiction applies as much to the “wide spectrum of online activities” as it does to offline advertisements, the report provides useful guidance regarding the placement of effective limitations and qualifications on advertising claims and the “clear and conspicuous” standard that governs required disclosures. Continue reading