Web Videos Test the Limits of Feeds, Uploads & Time-Shifting

Web-based videos, through links, feeds or user uploads, are generating significant legal and commercial interest these days. Advertisers are also quick to recognize the potential “buzz” marketing opportunities enabled by the use of the Internet and digital audiovisual technology. User-generated content draws consumers to websites, powerful magnets for advertising messages targeted to those consumers. But beware: Simply because a consumer creates the content, doesn’t mean it is immune from standard legal tests for advertising, endorsements, publicity and product liability.

A lawsuit has recently been filed against one online video-sharing network—Veoh—alleging it allowed video works owned by an adult entertainment company to be viewed through Veoh’s website without authorization. The claims of copyright infringement could be an important test of how the courts view sites that enable sharing or feeds of audiovisual works. Although there are a growing number of popular user-generated content sites such as IFILM, YouTube, Guba, Yahoo! and Google, these sites often have very different policies and some, but not all, of them review user-generated content before it is posted—either to ensure it meets guidelines or to confirm that the user’s tags are accurate.

Earlier this month, the New York State Consumer Protection Board published an official warning about content available on Google Video, the new Google site for user-generated content. Because videos are uploaded by users, Google Video relies on tags (labels which describe the content) which are input and generated by the users. Since the content is not indexed or catalogued by Google, a search will turn up whatever the user submits—and that is what has irritated the New York authorities. As with many websites that allow user-generated content to be uploaded for viewing, Google warns users about uploading obscene or illegal material or items protected by copyright, but currently has no mechanism for filtering it out.

In a move widely viewed as adding an air of legitimacy to these sites, Warner Bros. agreed to allow Guba to distribute some of its television shows and motion pictures, online. NBC is allegedly planning to make clips of some of its most popular programs available to YouTube to promote its fall programming lineup. NBC’s decision is reportedly coupled with advertising commitments for both companies in broadcast television medium and the Internet. That should come as no surprise since advertising is what is usually at the root of all of these revenue models—a fact that has not escaped broadcast network executives.

Also this month, a number of leading television production and motion picture companies joined forces in filing suit against Cablevision, one of the largest cable television companies in the United States. The action asks the U.S. District Court in New York to declare the time-shifting service Cablevision has announced, but not yet offered, in violation of U.S. copyright law. Cablevision has countered that time-shifting of programming by consumers is legal. Unlike an “on-demand” service which would record everything and replay programs when selected by the consumer, Cablevision intends to offer subscribers a specific amount of allocated storage space on the network. Analogous to an outsourced set-top box or digital video recording device that a consumer might purchase, Cablevision will offer consumers an opportunity to buy storage space and use it to record and play back programs and then erase them to free space for new programs—no different than if the storage medium was sitting in their living rooms. Stay tuned.

Look, Up on Your PC: It’s a Bird; It’s a Plane — No, It’s Buzz Marketing

In November 2005, Legal Bytes told you about how branded entertainment and product placement was one of the forces shaking up the world of advertising and marketing. We add to these forces even more creative innovations that are challenging the advertising and marketing world, as well as the legal and regulatory experts. “Buzz” or “viral” marketing is word-of-mouth advertising that promotes a product without disclosing any direct connection between the advertiser and the message. If you are a marketing professional, of course you want to identify people who will be interested in a particular message, and deliver the message in a way that makes it enjoyable and encourages them to share it with more people—you remember the hair color commercial on TV that ends with something like “she tells two friends and they tell two more friends and so on and so on….”

Now clearly, if an individual makes deceptive or misleading statements that weren’t induced, authorized or controlled by the advertiser, it’s hard to hold that advertiser responsible. But now advertisers are paying buzz “agents” to relay messages and encourage further word-of-mouth advertising. Thus, if the advertiser pays, it is hard to argue the advertiser is not liable for the truthfulness of authorized statements. But what happens if the buzzer’s unscripted message (i.e., their own message in their own words) is deceptive? Are their words similar to testimonials, regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, or a form of social spam, requiring disclosure like that mandated in the CAN SPAM Act? False testimonials have been the subject of state and federal actions for years. In some cases, actors in commercials looked so real, some Attorneys General required them to superimpose the words “dramatization” as a disclaimer on the TV screen. Years ago, a motion picture studio had billboards and commercials praising their movies. Unfortunately, the quotes and the purported journalist were invented by marketing staff at the studio.

These cases clearly establish that an advertiser is responsible for deceptive or misleading net impressions created by its advertising. Similarly, the FTC’s Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising provides that, “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.” There is no reason to believe these same standards do not apply to buzz marketing.

If an otherwise ordinary consumer becomes a buzz agent and is paid or given free products or other consideration in exchange for creating “buzz,” appropriate disclosure is likely to be required. Keep in mind, that to prevail in an action alleging a violation, the FTC must still show the activity was deceptive or misleading under Section 5 of the FTC Act—recall from November’s issue, that to make advertising actionable under Section 5 of the FTC Act depends on whether there is a representation or omission likely to mislead the consumer, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the situation involved, and the representation or omission must be “material.” As noted in that issue, “if the consumer knew or was told the truth, is it likely to affect a consumer’s behavior in connection with the product.”

The FTC has proposed rules under the CAN-SPAM Act, in which an advertiser is not subject to the Act’s technical requirements if the “send this to a friend” forwarding or sending feature on the website or in the e-mail is not “procured” by the advertiser. In other words, the advertiser hasn’t paid or provided other consideration or induced anyone to initiate the message on behalf of the advertiser—otherwise, the advertiser must comply with all of the CAN-SPAM Act requirements, including disclosing that the message is an advertisement.

While traditional advertising law principles apply, in fact there has been very little actual regulation of viral or buzz marketing. Don’t feel complacent. We should expect the lack of enforcement activity to change reasonably quickly as more advertisers turn to non-traditional avenues to get their message across. New approaches to buzz or viral marketing and, as mentioned in prior issues, product placement, serve to only increase legislative concerns and pressure from consumer advocacy, protection and other groups. As these marketing techniques become more sophisticated and advertisers become more involved in the creative surrounding the medium and the message, the risks increase. Are consumers deceived by information that appears to reflect independent views, when the relayers are actually being compensated for delivering an advertiser’s message? The law appears quite clear that lack of disclosure could violate state and federal law, depending upon the materiality of the statement to a reasonable consumer and corresponding consumer harm.

Psssssst—pass it on.
 

Disappointed in Super Bowl Bid, Giants Seek to Score on the Legal Field

This past November, the New York Giants and the NFL filed suit against Clear Channel Communications alleging breach of contract, trademark infringement, unfair competition and fraud. Apparently, a number of Clear Channel websites advertised a promotion that would enable listeners to win tickets to Giants’ football games. Both the Giants and the NFL allege that the stations were not authorized to use tickets as prizes in connection with any such promotion, and since the printed text on the back of the tickets specifically indicates tickets may not be used for advertising, promotion or other commercial purposes without the written consent of the NFL and the Giants, they sued. The complaint alleges that these promotions were unauthorized and (because apparently this was not the first time promotions like this were attempted) were a “willful and bad-faith” attempt to trade on the Giants’ and NFL’s famous trademarks and their goodwill. That, the complaint says, is likely to confuse consumers into believing that these promotions were sponsored or endorsed—authorized. The NFL and the Giants are seeking to enjoin the websites (and presumably any other medium) from using these tickets for promotional purposes or using their trademarks at all.

We will let you know as the two-minute warning approaches.

Product Placement–Time-Shifting Causes Ad Shifting

Product placement is an advertising activity which has grown for decades in the motion picture industry, going virtually unnoticed by legislators. When television began aggressively using product placement for advertising, concerns (and regulation) began increasing. Unlike motion pictures, television is legally required to distinguish between advertising and programming.

First, “infomercials” that looked and felt like programming were targeted by regulators, because they believed the infomercials were deceiving. After a number of cases, the industry developed and implemented disclosures to allay fears of regulators at the FCC and the FTC. Enter reality TV. Suddenly programs were using affiliations with sponsors as part of the content or story line, prompting fresh concerns. As cable television, pay-per-view and video-on-demand services, time-shifting and digital recording devices, and fast-forward buttons have become commonplace, advertisers have struggled to capture viewers’ attention with product placement. In 2004, product placement advertising rose to about $4.25 billion.

Why the fuss? Because product placement is advertising, subject to the same laws and regulations that govern commercials. On television, both the FTC and the FCC can regulate advertising, mandate disclosures and determine if something is deceptive or misleading. Where the line between harmless product placement and deceptive practices is drawn is increasingly blurred.

Whether a product placement is deceptive or misleading—sufficient to make it actionable under Section 5 of the FTC Act—depends on whether there is some representation or omission likely to mislead the consumer. The depiction of the product must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the situation and the representation or omission must be “material.” In other words, if the consumer knew or was told the truth, the consumer’s behavior would likely be affected in connection with the product.

The FCC also regulates deceptive product placements: viewers may not realize they are advertisements, hence the FCC requires disclosure. Failure to properly disclose the commercial nature of a product placement could amount to “payola” and would be illegal. Again, where the line is drawn between harmless inclusion of products in programming versus commercialization which misleads consumers is hardly clear.

The FTC and FCC regulations puts advertisers between a rock and a hard place. The FCC requires disclosure for a paid placement—which makes the product placement commercial speech. If it is commercial speech, is the placement then also subject to FTC disclosure rules? What if the advertiser has no control over the creative content and no approval over scripts or editing or even the extent of the product placement itself? Under those circumstances, how could the advertiser be responsible for the depiction of its product; the director, producer, actors, even the editorial staff, have ultimate creative control of what shows up on the screen. The advertiser could pay a substantial sum of money to watch its product wind up on the cutting room floor in post-production. Ouch.

Continue reading “Product Placement–Time-Shifting Causes Ad Shifting”

100% Legal = 100% Deceptive

What if you offer a tutorial service that teaches how to use peer-to-peer file-sharing programs and refers members to P2P networks but doesn’t actually license file-sharing programs, and doesn’t operate a file-sharing network itself? Sounds like it would be tough to prove copyright infringement—the Grokster case notwithstanding.

But what if you advertise that by becoming a member, subscribing and paying a fee, your P2P file-sharing is legal. “PEOPLE ARE NOT GETTING SUED FOR USING OUR SOFTWARE. YES! IT IS 100% LEGAL,” or “Rest assured that File-Sharing is 100% legal.” What if customers are deceived into thinking that by becoming a member, P2P file-sharing is legal? Remember, when anyone uses a P2P file-sharing program to download copyrighted material, or to make that material available to others without the copyright owner’s permission, it’s copyright infringement. Well the FTC has charged Cashier Myricks Jr., doing business as MP3downloadcity.com, with deceptive advertising by falsely claiming that membership in the service makes P2P file-sharing legal; and acting on the FTC’s action, a U.S. District Court judge has stopped the deceptive ads. The FTC is seeking to make the ban permanent.

Want to know more? The FTC has published “P2P File Sharing: Evaluating the Risks.” Oh, and you should also probably call Rimon…after all, we know advertising, marketing and promotion like nobody else.

KISS Technology–Don’t Just Keep It Simple, Keep It Really Simple

Did you think you just caught up to the clever marketing professionals that use search engines, click-throughs and product placement on reality TV or interactive gaming to stimulate your buying juices. Just hearing about “buzz” of viral marketing. Talk about being behind the times. A relatively new technology known as RSS (Really Simple Syndication—probably named by the same people who gave us KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid) is beginning to attract some clever marketing professionals to the web. While the technology is in its relative infancy (about five or so years old) in Internet time, adolescence—and therefore a bit of rebellion and wild times—are just ahead. RSS feeds allow individuals to aggregate information updates from web sites and blogs so they can review headlines and often a synopsis of them on a single site. You might know these programs as “news readers” or aggregators, because news and media companies already use RSS feeds to distribute summaries for their readers. Why the excitement? Well, you already know that “per-click” advertising allows advertisers to match spending with the numbers of consumers that are attracted to the advertisement—to some extent, a real-time metric of the effectiveness of any particular marketing campaign on the Internet.

What if you could more effectively target your advertising to a tailor-made-market–consumers who have expressed an interest in particular subjects. Imagine putting advertising for cameras onto an RSS web feed from a camera or lens manufacturer’s site. What if you use RSS technology to keep up to date on the latest entries in the automotive marketplace—and an advertiser puts auto advertising on the feeds. Not only is RSS feed advertising cheaper, but marketers can also target precisely those consumers who may be predisposed—or have expressed an interest—in the market for those products or services!

While RSS technology is still to be refined, consumers who are overwhelmed with the volume of data floating around the Internet have turned to more refined search engines and tools which help them self-select what they do and do not see. RSS technology is a natural outgrowth of that need, and as programs become more user-friendly, the marketing community is beginning to take notice. Did you really think you could rest easy having mastered ad-ware, spy ware, phishing, SPAM, cookies and banners, and such arcane terms that hearken back to the Jurassic age? The times they are always a’ changing. Keep an eye out for RSS—it’s coming to a news feed near you.

Waive Your Right to Jury Trial–California Weighs In

A recent California Supreme Court decision (Grafton Partners v. Pricewaterhouse Coopers) held that the California Constitution prohibits pre-dispute waiver agreements when it comes to jury trials. In other words, jury trial waiver provisions in many commercial and consumer contracts may now be unenforceable in California. The decision indicates that a party may not be able to contractually waive its rights to a jury trial because the California Code of Civil Procedure limited enforceability of jury waiver agreements to only those agreements that were entered into after the filing of a lawsuit, not in advance. This is likely to be appealed. We will keep you posted.

What a Jam(ster!) You’ve Gotten Us Into

Charles Ford has sued Verisign, Jamster!, Jamba! (the European version of Jamster!), T-Mobile USA, AT&T Wireless, and Cingular, hoping to turn his lawsuit into a worldwide class action. The problem: his daughter responded to a TV ad promising her a free ring tone. Although she claims never to have downloaded any songs the company sent her, Ford was billed $1.99, plus another 5 cents for each text message she received and read over her monthly limit—to the tune of $80. Ford is alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising, and unfair competition, and is claiming that by targeting children who often don’t understand, they are using this as a means to keep sending text messages which are read—costing consumers money. Stay tuned.

Ping Meets Pong

Whatzup with interactive, web-based digital video games? Plenty, if you believe what we read…coming up in the next issue, with struggling advertising revenues on TV and moviegoers’ increasing annoyance with the resurgence of advertising (which now seems to be replacing the 20 minutes of “coming attraction” trailers), advertisers are looking beyond product placement in reality TV shows and wondering if those captive eyeballs and fanatic game players can turn an interactive gaming industry into the next frontier of advertising. Not to mention those new chipsets and handhelds that are making video game graphics look almost like the real thing. Will virtual reality supplant reality and will promotional and advertising take us there? Stay tuned. [P.S.: This is called a “teaser.”]

Florida Law Relating to Print Advertising for Games of Chance is Modified

Florida’s Game Promotion Statute §849.094 has been modified, substantially reducing requirements for advertising games of chance in Florida—full rules are no longer required by Florida law in print advertising. Where previously a full set of full set of official rules for games of chance needed to be included in print advertisements in Florida, now advertising need only include “material terms” of the rules and regulations if the advertising includes a website address, toll-free telephone number or a mailing address where the full rules and regulations may be obtained.