Ongoing Website Editing Doesn’t Trump Single Publication Rule–Yeager v. Bowlin

By Eric Goldman

Yeager v. Bowlin, No. 10-15297 (9th Cir. Sept. 10, 2012)

The single publication rule says that the statute of limitations starts with the first publication of the work, and so long as the work doesn’t change, further disseminations of that work don’t restart the statute of limitations. In Internet cases, courts have consistently interpreted the single publication rule favorably for web publishers. This Ninth Circuit opinion echoes and extends the canon.

In 2008, Gen. Chuck Yeager sued a memorabilia website for publicity rights violations. The court said there was no evidence that the website had changed its references to Yeager since, at the latest, October 2003, putting the lawsuit well outside the 2 year statute of limitations. Prior cases have made it clear that continuing to host content on a website doesn’t reset the statute of limitations. Yeager argued that the defendants kept editing and changing their website, even if they didn’t change the parts about him, and this ongoing editing reset the statute of limitations. The court rejects the argument:

a statement on a website is not republished unless the statement itself is substantively altered or added to, or the website is directed to a new audience

The first half of the standard is quite defendant-favorable, consistent with the other single publication cases. I don’t understand the other language (“directed to a new audience”) and it seems like fertile ground for litigation mischief. I imagine the court meant that if the website left the tortious statement intact and changed all of the content around it to create an entirely different meaning, that would be a qualitatively different page that should reset the statute of limitations. But the court’s terse statement, without any illuminating explanation, hardly makes that clear. Still, overall, this is a favorable ruling for web publishers.

[remainder of the post removed due to legal threats]