Facebook Refers to Its Users As Public Figures

In California, a new Facebook feature which permits an advertiser to publish or broadcast a user’s “like” of its product to others in that individual’s circle is under scrutiny.

The United States District Court in San Jose, California refused to grant a motion to dismiss which states that Facebook ads violate its user’s right of publicity by utilizing their names and photographs without authorization. However, the court dismissed an unjust enrichment claim. In the lawsuit, Facebook’s position is that user permission is not required to promote its user’s likes to those in that user’s circle, in a category it terms “sponsored stories.” Facebook contends that such information is newsworthy and exempted under California’s right-of-publicity statute. The company’s position is that its users constitute public figures.

California’s right-of-publicity statute is codified under Civil Code section 3344 which states as follows:

“Any person who knowingly uses another’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness, in any manner, on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent, or, in the case of a minor, the prior consent of his parent or legal guardian, shall be liable for any damages sustained by the person or persons injured as a result thereof. In addition, in any action brought under this section, the person who violated the section shall be liable to the injured party or parties in an amount equal to the greater of seven hundred fifty dollars ($750) or the actual damages suffered by him or her as a result of the unauthorized use, and any profits from the unauthorized use that are attributable to the use and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages. In establishing such profits, the injured party or parties are required to present proof only of the gross revenue attributable to such use, and the person who violated this section is required to prove his or her deductible expenses. Punitive damages may also be awarded to the injured party or parties. The prevailing party in any action under this section shall also be entitled to attorney’s fees and costs.”

Generally, punitive damages are awarded in addition to actual damages when the defendant acted with recklessness, malice, or deceit. Punitive damages, which are intended to punish and thereby deter blameworthy conduct, are generally not recoverable for breach of contract. The Supreme Court has held that three guidelines help determine whether a punitive-damages award violates constitutional due process: (1) the reprehensibility of the conduct being punished; (2) the reasonableness of the relationship between the harm and the award; and (3) the difference between the award and the civil penalties authorized in comparable cases. BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589 (1996).

For more information about this topic contact Los Angeles Attorney, Salar Atrizadeh, Esq.