Showing posts with label invasion of privacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label invasion of privacy. Show all posts

Monday, October 28, 2013

Stock Image on ObamaCare Site Invites Scorn, Ridicule on Amateur Model

Aspiring models, be warned.

Now that the initial launch of the federal "ObamaCare" website has been declared an unmitigated logistical disaster, an odd intellectual property issue has been mentioned by bloggers and political pundits:  the rights of the models depicted in the stock photography used on the site.

When launched live on October 1, tens of millions of Americans visited the site to view an ethnically ambiguous, attractive 20-something woman smiling back, promising affordable health care.  "ObamaCare Girl" is precisely the target demographic that the administration is hoping sign up for health care.

Fox News called the smiling woman depicted in the stock photograph "mysterious," writing that "she smiles back at countless frustrated Americans as they tried to log onto the ObamaCare website."  The Washington Times dubbed her "Glitch Girl," and created a pseudo-mystery around her identity.

Since its launch, the website has crashed repeatedly, leading Congressional leaders to demand an accounting for the $300M dollars that have been spent on the website so far, given that few applicants have been satisfactorily able to sign up through the portal.

The unknown model whose face was used on the site may not be pleased with the newfound notoriety, but may have no legal recourse.

"Stock" photography is offered commercially by a wide variety of sources, such as Getty Images, Corbis, and  For an appropriate license fee, any user can easily download and use stock images for a variety of applications, including blogs and websites.

When objects depicted in the stock images are inanimate, the only release that is secured by the distributor is a license or assignment from the photographer.  Photographers are paid a scaled fee based on, among other things, the number of times that their images are downloaded and used.

However, when models are used in the images, the photographer typically secures a standard "release," which grants the licensees (including the distributors and end users) the right to pretty much plaster the image all over their websites and blogs.

The models essentially agree to release any claims that they might otherwise have for invasion of privacy, or appropriation of likeness under states' laws, in exchange for a nominal sum received from the photographer. In most cases, amateur models are paid very little to nothing per image, and give up all rights to control how their likenesses are used.

In the case of the anonymous woman whose face ended up appearing on a website viewed by millions of annoyed Americans, that notoriety might have been more than she bargained for.

The New York Daily News has noted that the image of ObamaCare Girl has now been removed, only to be replaced by stale graphics.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

BlockShopper: Bona Fide News Reporting or an Invasion of Privacy?

Example of a BlockShopper "Local Real Estate News Story" from St. Louis
Beginning in 2011, law firms Gioconda Law Group PLLC and Balestriere Fariello began an in-depth investigation into BlockShopper LLC.  Collectively, we reviewed hundreds of pages of public documents, collected news articles, read blogs and newsgroups, printed out screenshots and researched applicable federal state and local laws.  The following represents a summary of our findings.  We have not been compensated by anyone for our investigation, nor have we included or considered any privileged or confidential communications in this discussion.  The following is presented solely for the public’s interest in this matter.

BlockShopper LLC owns and operates an interactive Internet website that was co-founded in 2006 by Brian Timpone, a brash one-time Chicago TV reporter turned entrepreneur.  The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the 39-year-old co-founder’s latest gambit Journatic LLC struck a deal in April of this year in which the Tribune Co. agreed to invest an undisclosed amount in his 6-year-old media content provider.  But less than three months later, the Chicago Tribune reports that the partnership has become an embarrassment after ethical breaches, including false bylines, plagiarism and fake quotations, were discovered.

The BlockShopper website has also been plagued by public criticism and even an intellectual property infringement lawsuit brought by a major law firm.  For those unfamiliar with the website, they may be shocked to discover that it offers an aggregate of detailed personal information about individuals, including their names, spouses’ and children’s names, street addresses, details of their residential real estate transactions including property taxes paid, home values, photographs of their home and/or neighborhood, maps and directions to their home, educational background, employer(s), and even photographs.  Some have characterized it as a stalker's dream come true, where personal information is gathered from multiple sources and presented in a comprehensive format.  Identity thieves might also find such helpful information handy.

BlockShopper has also displayed photographs that it has reproduced and copied from personal and business websites, seemingly without the prior authorization, permission or consent of the photographers’ and/or of the individuals depicted in many of the photographs.  BlockShopper has even copied and displayed images of individuals taken from their personal profiles on popular social networking sites such as Facebook®, MySpace® and LinkedIn®, seemingly without the prior approval or permission of those individuals or companies.

The BlockShopper website is profit-driven, although it styles itself as a “local real estate news” reporting tool and does not charge for general access.  Despite its controversial nature (or perhaps in part because of it), the BlockShopper website receives nearly 1 million hits per month.  BlockShopper uses this substantial traffic to woo advertisers and real estate agents, bragging that it is currently operating in many geographic markets across the United States, and that its audience and reach is rapidly growing.

However, not everyone whose information and images are displayed on BlockShopper becomes a fan of the unexpected notoriety.  Indeed, Timpone was personally named in a lawsuit brought by Jones Day, a large national law firm in Cleveland, Ohio for his conduct, but he chose to settle and remove numerous images of that law firm’s attorneys to avoid the expense of further litigation.  To settle that case, BlockShopper’s management team agreed that “it will not use photographs appearing on the Jones Day website without the prior written approval of Jones Day.”

But news articles reported that the Jones Day lawsuit had no meaningful long-term effect on addressing BlockShopper’s overall approach: “The Jones Day lawsuit is not slowing the [BlockShopper] site down from expanding into new markets.  Last weekend, BlockShopper launched in three new cities--Cleveland, Washington, and Phoenix.  That’s on top of the company's recent expansion into Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and additional neighborhoods in Illinois.”  Since then, BlockShopper covers even more geographic areas.

Numerous blogs, including and "BOOM" (the "BlockShopper Opt Out Movement"), Facebook pages and public newsgroups have sprung up, reporting that hundreds of individuals have repeatedly complained to BlockShopper and unsuccessfully demanded that their personal information be removed from the website. Complaints have flooded consumer complaint boards, and State Attorney Generals’ offices have gotten involved. BlockShopper has even received complaints about dangerous individuals viewing the aggregated personal information that BlockShopper provides, in order to violate restraining orders.

Specific law enforcement-related complaints seem to have forced BlockShopper to remove at least some listings.  But in many cases, Blockshopper has received numerous, repeated complaints from individuals demanding that their personal information be removed from the website, but adamantly refuses to remove such placement, claiming that its conduct is fully protected by the freedom of speech and of the press.  

The BlockShopper website defends its stance in its“Frequently Asked Questions” section:
Public records are public for a reason. That is, your name isn’t on the title of the property you own—for all to see—to facilitate neighbor nosiness but because it is in the collective public interest. The most important charge of a local government is to guarantee land title; to keep accurate, timely records of who owns what. If we couldn’t learn the “who,” uncertainty would reign and land transactions would slow to a crawl. This would be bad for everyone’s house value. Furthermore, the prices we pay for our homes are public as they serve as the basis for local property taxes. Keeping this information like a secret would result in a lucky few paying too little, while the rest of us pay too much. In the spirit of fairness, we report public records as they are reported to us. We do not eliminate records on, as doing so compromises the integrity of our data.
But BlockShopper goes even further than just reporting real estate data, like does.  BlockShopper’s display has included hundreds of photographs taken wholesale from hospitals’ and physicians’ websites, colleges and universities’ sites, small businesses’ sites as well as directly from private individuals’ websites.

160+ Complaints and Negative Reviews of BlockShopper Appear on
These people are not what the law would traditionally deem “public figures.”  In fact, BlockShopper has mostly appropriated images of otherwise private individuals such as secretaries, librarians, computer programmers, graphic designers, accountants, teachers, physicians, dentists, engineers, architects and photographers and others.  

Therefore, the core legal question presented by the BlockShopper model is whether the copying, reproduction and display of aggregated information about private individuals alongside their headshots are activities that constitute bona fide “news reporting” about real estate transactions that are protected by the First Amendment, or are really just an invasion of privacy cloaked in the guise of news.

For better or worse, from a precedential standpoint, BlockShopper may have the better of the legal argument when it comes to the legal standard of “newsworthiness.”  In the geographic markets where BlockShopper collects its data, the county clerks’ offices, the privacy statutes and the courts have consistently stated that the test for “news reporting” is liberally applied.  See, e.g., Illinois law (1075/§ 35 (b) (right to control one’s identity does not apply to “non-commercial purposes including any news, public affairs…”); see also Messenger ex rel. Messenger v. Gruner + Jahr Printing and Pub, 94 N.Y.2d 436, 727 N.E.2d 549 (New York Ct. of Appeals, 2000) (“where a plaintiff's picture is used to illustrate an article on a matter of public interest, there can be no liability … unless the picture has no real relationship to the article or the article is an advertisement in disguise”; Maheu v. CBS, 201 Cal. App. 3d 662, 675 (1988) (“even a tortious invasion of privacy is exempt from liability if the publication of private facts is truthful and newsworthy.”).

Nonetheless, many individuals and commentators have voiced concerns that a public policy that permits unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by BlockShopper would result in a substantially adverse impact on the actual and/or potential marketplace – but marketplace for what? 

Because the discrete information that BlockShopper aggregates is generally available from county clerk’s offices anyway, and Internet-posted headshots are not usually offered “for sale,” it is not clear what exact “marketplace” is being negatively affected.

In a broader sense, one could argue that BlockShopper’s unauthorized appropriation of images and information from social networking sites may serve to deter private individuals from engaging in socially productive interaction on the Internet.  In fact, Brian Timpone warned the public to this negative impact in a news interview:  If you don’t want to be on BlockShopper,don’t promote yourself on the Web.”  

But private individuals and copyright holders making images of themselves visible on the World Wide Web could theoretically argue that they have not legally consented to BlockShopper’s appropriation of those images for BlockShopper’s commercial gain.  

Therefore, there is at most an unresolved legal question as to whether BlockShopper’s display of headshots is a legally-permissible “fair use” of those particular images in connection with bona fide news reporting about those individuals.

Finally, many individuals sincerely believe that BlockShopper’s conduct violates their individual right to privacy.  However, they may be surprised to discover that laws regarding the privacy of truthful facts are not as restrictive as one might think.  If BlockShopper has accomplished nothing else, it has contributed to a collective legislative push by some to get real estate data privacy laws toughened up at the county and local levels.

In conclusion, the thorny legal issues surrounding BlockShopper’s website, and other identity aggregators like it, remain mostly unresolved at a national level.  Those who remain disturbed and disgusted by BlockShopper’s approach and question the bona fides of its “news reporting” may best be served writing their local legislators about making the data surrounding their local real estate transactions private.