No Immunity: State Right of Publicity Law is § 230 “Law Pertaining to Intellectual Property”
The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that § 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230(c), does not preclude claims based on state intellectual property laws, reversing in part a district court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s state law claims for violation of her right of publicity. Hepp v. Facebook, Case Nos. 20-2725; – 2885 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021) (Hardiman, J.) (Cowen, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).
In 2018, Karen Hepp, a Philadelphia newscaster, discovered a photo of herself making its way around the internet. The picture, taken without Hepp’s knowledge or consent, depicts her smiling in a convenience store and was posted in two locations online. The first post was a Facebook advertisement promoting a dating service, which encouraged users to “meet and chat with single women near you.” The second post was to Imgur and was subsequently linked to a Reddit thread, where it spurred a flurry of indecent user commentary. Hepp sued Facebook, Imgur and Reddit for violations of Pennsylvania’s right of publicity statute. The district court dismissed Hepp’s claims with prejudice, holding that all three companies were entitled to immunity as internet service providers under § 230(c). Hepp appealed.
The Third Circuit found that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction over Imgur and Reddit on a “purposeful availment” minimum contacts basis and affirmed dismissal of the claims against those parties.
With respect to Facebook, the Third Circuit considered whether it was immune under § 230(c). Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was intended to promote the internet, specifically by preserving “the vibrant and competitive free market …unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” Accordingly, § 230(c) provides Good Samaritan protection for internet service providers, encouraging them to host and moderate third-party content by immunizing them from some publisher liability regarding certain moderation decisions. However, pursuant to § 230(e)(2), such immunization does not “limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.”
The first question addressed by the Third Circuit was whether § 230(e)(2) can apply to state law claims generally. The Court acknowledged that precious few cases interpreting § 230’s intellectual property provision exist, and that the existing cases present a clear split on whether § 230(e)(2) applies only to federal intellectual property claims. The Court, adhering to what it regarded as the most natural reading of § 230(e)(2), (i.e., that a state law can be a “law pertaining to intellectual property law”) determined that application of § 230(e)(2) was not limited to federal claims. The Court was not persuaded by Facebook’s policy arguments regarding a purported increase in uncertainty regarding the contours of § 230(c) immunity if state law intellectual property claims, which vary from state to state, were exempt from such immunity.
The second question the Third Circuit addressed was whether Hepp’s right of publicity claim arose from a “law pertaining to intellectual property.” In finding that it did, the Court relied on a survey of legal dictionaries and determined that the term “intellectual property” has been recognized to include the right of publicity. The Court further explained that the right of publicity is analogous to patent, copyright and trademark rights because it protects the time, effort and money that an individual—such as a newscaster—devotes to building, promoting and sustaining her public-facing brand.
The Third Circuit emphasized that its holding was relatively narrow in that it did not threaten free speech. Rather, the Court analogized the protected interest to counterfeiting, where a counterfeit item can misappropriate a trademark owner’s goodwill. Similarly, suggesting that Hepp endorsed a dating service with which she was unaffiliated was actionable. The Court also declined to opine on whether other states’ right of publicity laws—particularly those without Pennsylvania’s requirement that the claimed “likeness” be “developed through the investment of time, effort, and money”—are also exempt from § 230 immunity.