The Sex Tape Problem…and a Possible Legislative Solution?

By Eric Goldman

An inescapable fact of the digital era is that people will be depicted in digitized sex videos (“sex tapes”) that they wish did not exist. Sex tapes can be classified into a variety of types:

* sex tapes of non-consensual sex. The taping may exacerbate the harm to the victim, but the non-consensual sex is already criminal–and the sex tape could provide valuable evidence to the prosecution to help convict the criminal. The consent issue gets trickier when dealing with underage participants who are legally incapable of consenting to sex, such as two underage teens who might jointly decide to tape their sexual encounter.

* sex tapes of consensual sex where one of the parties didn’t consent to the taping.

* sex tapes where both the sex and the taping were fully consensual, but one of the parties exceeds the scope of consent about subsequent use or disclosure. Ex 1: sex partner keeps and watches sex tape after breakup in contravention of other party’s wishes. Ex 2: sex partner distributes the tape to third parties who the other party didn’t contemplate would see the video. In the most egregious case, the sex partner publicly distributes the tape via the Internet when the other party intended the video to remain private.

* sex tapes where the sex, taping, and further use or distribution are fully consensual among all depicted parties. I believe this describes some of the publicity hounds that deliberately leak sex tapes as a type of marketing for the depicted individual(s) (unfortunately, another seemingly inescapable fact of our lives), even if the depicted individual lightly protests about the distribution to increase the scandal factor. These don’t raise a lot of interesting legal issues.

Public distributions of sex tapes are surprisingly common. Check out the long list of celebrity sex tapes at Wikipedia. A Westlaw search for the term “sex tape” in all state/federal cases yields 29 lawsuits reported in Westlaw (I’m sure there are synonyms that would reveal more litigation that has made it into Westlaw, and of course Westlaw covers only a small fraction of the cases).

From a legal standpoint, it’s easy to offer some proactive suggestions for people creating a sex tape. One, don’t make a sex tape unless you can fully control it technologically (or you don’t mind if the tape becomes the most-downloaded video on the Internet). Of course, perfect technological control over digital bits may be impossible nowadays; for example, some of the celebrity sex tapes were allegedly leaked by computer repair personnel. Two, if you make a sex tape and don’t fully control it technologically, clearly delineate with the other party/parties the disposition of the sex tape in various circumstances, such as breakup. From a lawyer’s standpoint, a written contract would be nice.

(This last paragraph demonstrates a third immutable truth that I’m not oblivious to: proactive guidance about the production, control or distribution of sex tapes from a law professor is not that useful. But I digress…).

Unfortunately, once lawyers are brought in to deal with the non-consensual creation, use or distribution of a sex tape, they may not be able to do much to help the non-consenting party. Simply put, existing law provides poor controls for a non-consenting party. There is a long list of torts and crimes that MIGHT provide some control to the non-consenting party depending on the precise facts of the specific situation, including privacy rights (such as public disclosure of private facts), anti-child porn laws, obscenity, ECPA/wiretapping, copyright infringement, breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, cyberbullying or cyber-harassment and extortion (if the tape possessor makes a “do X or the tape goes up on YouPorn” type threat).

At the same, depending on the precise facts, it is also possible that the non-consenting party could have no effective recourse against a non-consensual public distribution of a sex tape. First, the laws simply may not fit the facts. Second, even if they do, some of the legal doctrines (such as privacy rights violations) are so “squishy” that they can be hard to enforce, and any criminal prosecution requires a prosecutor to actually take the case. Third, and most problematically, a sex tape posted online might quickly be reposted on multiple servers, including some overseas, exponentially increasing the costs, and substantially decreasing the likelihood, of successfully purging the tape from public view.

Meanwhile, the harm to the non-consenting party can be substantial. The sex tape be profoundly embarrassing to the party (even if the person didn’t actually do anything “embarrassing”). The sex tape might provide forensic evidence of illicit adultery/cheating, and that could irreparably change social relationships. Finally, the tape can change the way people perceive the person. For example, a person may have economic or social prospects predicated on a wholesome image, such as beauty pageant contestants, in which case the tape can undermine that image and destroy economic prospects or social relationships.

I was recently discussing this issue with a colleague over lunch and we started kicking around the idea that maybe the sex tape problem would benefit from legislative intervention. Yes, in this limited circumstance for this specific problem, even I am willing to acknowledge that a new law might be worth considering. Our discussion covered two interrelated ideas:

1) It should be impermissible for someone to distribute a sex tape online without all depicted individuals having consented to the distribution. (We could easily extend that to offline distributions as well, but I’m just focusing on the problems of Internet publication now).

2) Intermediary online publishers should be subject to a DMCA-style notice-and-takedown scheme where a non-consenting party can provide suitably rigorous notice that the tape was distributed without his/her consent, in which case the intermediary has some time post-notification to remove the tape before facing further consequences. The notice-and-takedown scheme should also provide the poster with a counter-notification process that shifts the legal liability back to the poster and off the intermediary. Obviously, this requirement would need to override 47 USC 230. However, the notice-and-takedown scheme is essential to give the non-consenting party some effective recourse against the quick proliferation of a video to multiple sites.

I know these suggestion aren’t perfect. Some of the obvious deficiencies:

* the definition of a sex tape. It’s easy to define the paradigmatic situation, but there are a lot of edge cases that might be hard to resolve in a statutory definition.

* defining consent. Would written consent be required? If oral consent is enough, doesn’t that open the door to lots of irresolute and time-consuming he-said/she-said factual disputes?

* the level of validation required for the takedown notice. We could just allow a person to claim identity and lack of consent, or we could require the person to go through some hoops before their takedown notice is effective.

* Constitutional considerations. Personally, I don’t think these are especially problematic here, but they are always a consideration when regulating sexual material.

Finally, the most obvious problem is that this would proliferate yet another limited privacy law as a point solution to a specific problem instead of providing a more comprehensive omnibus privacy regulatory scheme preferred by privacy advocates. This would definitely be true, but the limited nature of the regulation and the remedies is a part of why this proposal appeals to me. If we are dealing only with sex tapes, and only requiring consent of the depicted individuals, the risks of plaintiff litigation frenzies, takedown spam and collateral content censorship goes way down, but still a particularly pernicious problem becomes much easier to solve.

So, what do you think? Comments are still down, but feel free to leave a trackback or email me and let me know if I can append your comment to this post.


From Colette (7/11):

I would advocate that the new law not only apply to on-line. The sort of law should cover dissemination of sex tapes (however defined) in any format (though the on-line medium is of course much worse because of the viral distribution options).

To the list of possible claims, in some circumstances you might have a defamation claim (e.g. if the sex tape editor/poster refers to the person depicted in the tape as a “porn star”, but the person is not).

For the “getting/proving consent” (or perhaps the opposite: expressly stating non-consent) problem, the participants may fairly easily put their consent on the video itself. For most of the cases, that may work in place of a paper agreement re: consent. (One obvious problem of putting the consent on the tape itself, is make sure both (or all) parties have a copy of the tape, including the part of the tape that deals with the consent issue. In the real world, I can imagine that the party who is harmed may not keep a copy of the tape (it’s old, from a long time ago, lost in moves, deliberately thrown out because s/he wants to put the incidence behind them). The other party who has it, could easily discard/delete the part of the tape where the “non-consent” is stated. Even if the harmed party expressly stated on the tape that s/he does not consent to distribution, that party would have no proof. Ahhh. This is why we lawyers wold prefer a written agreement. Much easier to track that down if it exists!

[Eric’s response: I love it! From a legal perspective, it would be better if before the parties got frisky, they both looked into the camera and expressed their consent. Maybe something like “I consent to this video being posted to the web. Now, show me your &^%$!” Then again, this type of videoed consent to being videoed was instrumental in squelching Ashley Dupre’s lawsuit against Girls Gone Wild.]