Court Rules in 'Morphing' Case

Rhett Pardon
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — In a California case of particular interest to webmasters, an appellate court has ruled that a suit over use of computer-altered likenesses is time-barred under the Uniform Single Publication Act (USPA).

The 2nd District Court of Appeal on Tuesday affirmed judgment for The Walt Disney Co. in a case that alleged the media giant defamed plaintiffs by broadcasting their likenesses.

Plaintiffs Dean Long Jr. and others sued Disney Jan. 18, 2002, for using sixth-grade yearbook photographs altered by computers into characters that were incorporated as fictional, cartoon-like characters in a series of vignettes broadcast in Saturday morning children’s programming on ABC television, as well as other retail products and Internet tie-ins.

All of the images, which Disney admitted appropriating, had been discontinued by Jan. 17, 2000.

By missing the two-year statute of limitations by one day under the USPA, the court turned to a 1987 Ohio case, Morgan v. Hustler Magazine Inc. for guidance. That court ruled the claims are governed by the USPA and the longest statute of limitations applicable by plaintiffs’ action is two years.

Long and other plaintiffs contend they did not see the broadcast or become aware of the use of their likenesses in time under USPA.

“The fact that these plaintiffs did not see the broadcasts does not change the fact that, unlike a credit files, these images were in plain view,” the court wrote in Dean Long et al. v. The Walt Disney Co. “Allowing these plaintiffs to sue years after the broadcasts ceased, without any indication of fraud or a meaningful inability to discover the broadcasts, would violate the principal policy that underlies the rule.”

The court further said that “there was no evidence that the likenesses that were broadcast, morphed as they were, were unrecognizable to each of the plaintiffs at their first viewing.”

It also said the policy issue is clear, that the USPA was designed to eliminate “ungovernable piecemeal liability.”