Keeping C&D Letters Confidential

By Eric Goldman

An all-too-familiar story. A famous celebrity takes her clothes off in a private outdoor space (in this case, Jennifer Aniston goes topless in her backyard). The paparazzi captures the event for posterity and profit. Celebrity finds out and unleashes a bulldog lawyer on the case. Lawyer writes a cease and desist letter to potential publisher with stern warnings about republishing the photos. The cease-and-desist letter hits the Internet. (In all likelihood, the photos will hit the Internet too, but to my knowledge we haven’t gotten that far yet).

Here’s the twist that triggers this blog post. The lawyer’s letter says no less than 3 times that the C&D recipient may not publish the cease-and-desist letter:

* the letter is titled at the top “confidential legal notice/not for publication”

* the second sentence says “This is a confidential legal notice…and may not be published or disseminated in any way.”

* the last paragraph reads: “This letter is a confidential legal communication and is not for publication. Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of the Copyright Act, and You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization.”

These brouhahas never seem to end up well for anyone. Let’s deconstruct the situation.

Jennifer Aniston

Jennifer Aniston should have known better. I recognize this may sound a little heartless; after all, she was in her own home and her lawyer alleges that the photographer was a mile away using an incredibly high-powered telephoto lens. If true, no question she should have had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

However, I believe that in practice, the rules are simply different for the top 1,000 most famous people in the world. For these celebrities, certain activities (nakedness, friskiness, ingesting) in a potentially observable place are never consequence-free, regardless of what the law says or the celebrity wants.

In this case, an afternoon of topless sunbathing at home has the consequence of a multi-month multi-continent pitched legal battle that, in all likelihood, will be futile (i.e., the pictures will almost certainly irrevocably hit the Internet). I’m not saying this is a good outcome, but it’s an inevitable result in this era. This has to be on the minds of the world’s most famous celebrities at this point.

The Paparazzi

If the photographer really did use a telescopic lens to take pictures of someone’s backyard from a mile away and then tried to resell the photos, I’m fairly comfortable that there will be legal redress.

The Lawyer and the Smoking Gun

Some people complain that lawyers can’t communicate very well, but good news here–we have no problem understanding what this lawyer wanted. He did not want to see this letter posted to the Internet. Yet, there it is, on the Smoking Gun in all its glory.

There are some problems with the lawyer’s desire. How can a lawyer claim that a cease-and-desist letter is a confidential communication? In general, sending the letter to a third party without any confidentiality assurances should blow any legal confidentiality protections. The lawyer’s redundant declarations doesn’t change the analysis one iota (if anything, repeating these statements to bloggers will invariably lead to the opposite outcome). So, on its face, I don’t see how the confidentiality demands/instructions are anything more than hyperbolic and low-efficacy scare tactics.

The copyright issue is more complex. The letter should qualify as an original work of authorship, and posting the letter online should violate at least 2 of the 106 rights (reproduction and distribution).

But is there some legal defense that nevertheless permits the reposting of C&D letters? The most obvious one is fair use, but fair use analyses are always tricky. For a good example in a relevant context, consider how Google deals with C&D letters it receives. At the Yale Regulating Search conference, a Google representative explained that Google turns over all 512(c)(3) demand letters to because (a) Google wants the letters to see the light of day, (b) Google feared that publishing the letters would be an unexcused infringement, and (c) Google thinks that’s republication of the letters would be protected by fair use.

Can this be right? Google can’t republish the letter but a third party can? changes the fair use analysis in two ways: first, it’s a non-profit actor, and second, it does add some commentary to the letter. But this seems like a silly formalistic solution. (I’ll note that the Aniston C&D letter recipient apparently took the same approach, handing the letter off to the Smoking Gun, who added some light commentary).

C&D letter recipients shouldn’t have to go to such extremes. Senders of C&D letters should be accountable for their actions. They seek legal redress and the letters themselves are legally significant (i.e., they could create the basis for willfulness determinations; they may be the basis for the recipient seeking a declaratory judgment). To fully understand what is taking place in the field, information about these C&Ds has to enter the public discourse. And simply reporting the receipt of a C&D isn’t enough–to understand the letter and its potential impacts, external observers have to read the precise words used.

Therefore, I would strongly favor a statute that exculpates C&D letter recipients from republishing the letter. Because such a statute is unlikely, I am hoping the courts will create a defacto per se fair use exclusion for republishing C&D letters. Meanwhile, kudos to the Smoking Gun for not letting the repeated exhortations keep the letter off the Internet.

Finally, I suspect some readers of this post got here on the mistaken hope of seeing the pictures in question (or others of a similar nature). If you made it this far with that expectation, I’m sorry to disappoint.