CaféPress Denied 230 Motion to Dismiss–Curran v. Amazon

By Eric Goldman

Curran v., Inc., 2008 WL 472433 (S.D. W.Va. Feb. 19, 2008)

Erik Curran was a National Guard soldier who served in “a combat zone.” For reasons unclear from this opinion, he was photographed by an unspecified photographer, and the photo (or photos) of Curran became widely republished. Erik is now suing numerous defendants for violations of his publicity and privacy rights based on these republications.

CaféPress is a defendant because third party users provided Curran’s photos for republication on CaféPress-produced t-shirts. CaféPress asserts a 230 defense.

Superficially, 230 looks possible. The images were provided to CaféPress by third parties, CaféPress is a website, and 230 preempts right of privacy claims. I also think 230 probably bar right of publicity claims; even if the publicity claims are IP claims, they would still be state-based IP claims that should be preempted per ccBill.

Nevertheless, I’m a little confused about CafePress’ 230 defense. Even assuming 230 facially applies, it should cover only CaféPress’ web-based publications and not the vending of physical goods. (As discussed in the Accusearch case, it’s possible that any vending by a merchant of record is outside 230’s scope, even when the vended materials are just online data). Thus, CaféPress’ shipment of physical space t-shirts with an improper image could be outside 230’s scope. Perhaps CaféPress believes (much like Amazon did in the Corbis v. Amazon case) that the physical space sales are made by its users, not CaféPress. I could see a judge buying that argument, but if CaféPress is integrally involved in every aspect of the physical retailing, manufacturing and shipment of the impermissible items, it’s not clear CaféPress can avoid liability for the non-cyberspace activities, none of which should be covered by 230. (In this sense, I believe CaféPress provides substantially more services to its third party “merchants” than Amazon provides its zShop merchants that were at issue in the Corbis case).

The court doesn’t get into this nuance here. Instead, CaféPress argued that Curran’s complaint had not alleged that CaféPress had created or developed the content at issue. The court says this argument is insufficient because “CaféPress relies upon the absence of facts not pled in the complaint and seeks to place the onus on the plaintiff to plead around affirmative defenses, which it need not do.” I think the court is wrong about this–many courts have granted the 230 defense on a motion to dismiss based on incomplete allegations–but this may not matter in the end. The court adds that “plaintiff faces an uphill battle given the broad grant of immunity conferred by § 230, as interpreted in the seminal case of [Zeran].” But the denial of the motion to dismiss gives Curran a fishing expedition license and some time to parse through the liability associated with vending physical items.

One other interesting note. Curran also sued Amazon for displaying a book cover (from a third party publisher) that featured Curran without his consent. Amazon defended by citing the Almeida case, which dealt with an identical issue. In Almeida, the court sidestepped Amazon’s 230 defense and instead held that Amazon wasn’t liable because the book cover display was just incidental to Amazon’s sale of the book. This court defers the issue, refusing the motion to dismiss as too early to make that judgment.

UPDATE: Michael Erdman’s comments.