ALFANO v. NGHT, INC. No. 06 CV 3511(NG)(JO).
623 F.Supp.2d 355 (2009)
Robert ALFANO, Plaintiff, v. NGHT, INC., NGC Network U.S., LLC operating the National Geographic Channel (as a business enterprise of Fox Cable Networks, Inc.), and Corbis Corporation, Defendants.
United States District Court, E.D. New York.
June 11, 2009.
Carol F. Simkin, New York, NY, pro se.
OPINION AND ORDER
GERSHON, District Judge:
Plaintiff Robert Alfano brings this action against NGHT, Inc., NGC Network U.S., LLC, operating the National Geographic Channel ("NGC") as a business enterprise of Fox Cable Networks, Inc. (collectively, the "NGC Defendants"), and Corbis Corporation ("Corbis"), seeking injunctive relief and compensatory damages (from all defendants) and an accounting (from Corbis) under New York Civil Rights Law § 51. Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, all defendants move for summary judgment on the first count and defendant Corbis, the sole defendant on the second count, moves for summary judgment on that count. Plaintiff moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability with respect to all defendants on the first count and as to Corbis on the second count.
The material facts pertinent to the resolution of these motions are not in dispute. This case arises from plaintiff's encounter with the press outside the New York state courthouse where notorious mobster John Gotti was facing trial in 1991. Mr. Gotti's trial drew intense media scrutiny, and reporters and photographers sometimes thronged outside the courthouse at the end of the day. Plaintiff attended Mr. Gotti's trial on at least three occasions, believing it to be "very high profile" and the "trial of the decade." At the end of one of those days, plaintiff left the courthouse with an acquaintance, a clerk then working for Mr. Gotti's counsel. Mr. Gotti had just left the courthouse by the same exit, and plaintiff observed that a number of photographers were taking pictures.
According to plaintiff, Mr. Gotti asked plaintiff to "get [him] to [his] car". Plaintiff spotted one of Mr. Gotti's apparent associates waving him towards the car, "grabbed him [Gotti] and ... turned him around and just walked him to the car". Plaintiff gave Mr. Gotti this assistance voluntarily. As plaintiff walked Mr. Gotti to his car, Ed Quinn, a freelance photographer who is not a party to this suit, took a picture of the two of them, showing plaintiff grasping Mr. Gotti's arm (the "Image"). Mr. Quinn later consigned the Image to defendant Corbis for licensing.
On some unspecified date before June 2005, Corbis began to display the Image on its website to offer it for licensing. NGC then licensed the Image from Corbis for use in connection with its program Inside the Mafia. This documentary depicted the history of organized crime in America, including the several trials of Mr. Gotti. It apparently used recreations of events as well as actual footage, as the production did involve actors (identified as extras) and sets.
Plaintiff himself was never involved in the Mafia, and, in fact, no reference to plaintiff (not even the Image itself) actually appears in Inside the Mafia. However, on or about May 30, 2005, NGC installed phone kiosk posters in New York City advertising Inside the Mafia that incorporated the Image. NGC also included the Image in the Inside the Mafia press kit and in newspaper advertisements for the program. On or about June 2005, plaintiff learned from a family member that he appeared in the phone kiosk posters.
On May 30, 2006, plaintiff commenced this action in state court against the NGC Defendants and Wall-to-Wall Media, Ltd. The action was removed to federal court by the NGC Defendants on July 17, 2006. Plaintiff amended the complaint to add a second cause of action and add claims against defendant Corbis to the action on January 11, 2007. Plaintiff agreed to the dismissal of its claims against Wall-to-Wall Media, Ltd., and they were dismissed on February 20, 2007.
I. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
II. Plaintiffs Claims Against the NGC Defendants
The NGC Defendants move for summary judgment on plaintiffs first count, arguing that Inside the Media is newsworthy and thus that their use of the Image in various advertising materials promoting the film is protected under the "incidental use" exception to New York Civil Rights Law § 51 for advertisements of newsworthy media.
Section 51, often called New York's "right of privacy" law,
Plaintiff's argument that Inside the Mafia is not newsworthy within the meaning of Messenger is unconvincing. The activities of organized crime in the United States have long been a matter of public interest, even fascination. Plaintiff himself admits that he considered Mr. Gotti's trial to be "very high profile" and "the trial of the decade". As newsworthiness is to be "broadly construed", id. at 441,
Turning to the question of advertising, a media publication with newsworthy content may use an individual's image in an advertisement that reproduces that content—for instance, the reproduction of a magazine cover depicting a famous actress in an advertisement for subscriptions to the magazine—without violating Section 51. Courts have reasoned that Section 51 must permit this kind of "incidental use" to allow a publication to "prove its worth and illustrate its content." Booth v. Curtis Publ'g Co.,
The NGC Defendants' use of the Image in the Inside the Media promotional materials is such an "incidental use." As discussed above, the film is newsworthy. Although plaintiff's image does not appear in Inside the Mafia, the film did cover the trial that plaintiff attended. An image of plaintiff and Mr. Gotti leaving the courthouse together is therefore sufficiently "illustrative of the content" of that work to qualify as an "incidental use."
Finally, "New York does not recognize [the] common-law tort" of false light (i.e., the publication of information that would place an individual in a "false light" in the public eye). Messenger, 94 N.Y.2d at 448,
I therefore reject plaintiff's argument that the NGC Defendants' use of the Image was impermissible because it "fictionalized" plaintiffs experience and created the impression that plaintiff had a relationship with Mr. Gotti or the Mafia which he did not actually have. Ultimately, plaintiff is trying to make a claim that the use of the Image to advertise a Mafia documentary placed him in a false light, but New York law is clear that plaintiffs cannot recover on this theory even under egregious circumstances.
Plaintiff also argues that the promotional materials for Inside the Media themselves are the sort of "fictionalization" that Messenger indicated might be actionable under Section 51.
Summary judgment is thus granted to the NGC Defendants on the first count.
III. Plaintiffs Claims Against Corbis
A. First Count
Defendant Corbis moves for summary judgment on plaintiff's first count (with respect to its licensing of the Image to the NGC Defendants for use in the advertising materials for Inside the Mafia), arguing that the licensing of the Image falls under Section 51's exception for sales for use in a lawful manner.
In Arrington, the Court of Appeals held that the mere sale of images, without more, is a use "for the purposes of trade" and thus creates liability under Section 51. 55 N.Y.2d at 443, 449 N.Y.S.2d 941, 434 N.E.2d 1319. However, in 1983, shortly after Arrington was decided, the New York state legislature amended Section 51 to clarify that it was not intended to prohibit sales of images for use in a lawful manner: "[N]othing contained in this article shall be so construed as to prevent any person . . . from selling or otherwise transferring any [such] material . . . to any user... for use in a manner lawful under this article ..." This exception makes it possible for freelance photographers like Mr. Quinn and licensing companies like Corbis to conduct their business without liability so long as the ultimate use of their images is lawful; without it, they would be liable for the sale of the very images which media publications could then publish with impunity.
Although plaintiff never clearly states the basis for Corbis's liability on the first count, it would appear to arise from Corbis's licensing of the Image to the NGC Defendants, which led to its use by the NGC Defendants. As discussed above, however, I find that the NGC Defendants' use of the Image was a lawful "incidental use." Therefore, Corbis's licensing of the Image to the NGC Defendants is explicitly excepted from liability under Section 51. Summary judgment is granted to Corbis on the first count.
B. Second Count
Corbis also moves for summary judgment on the second count, concerning its long-running display of the Image on its website for licensing purposes, on the grounds that such display is a necessary aspect of its lawful licensing of the Image and thus also falls under Section 51's exception for sales for use in a lawful manner.
Plaintiff alleges, and Corbis appears to concede, that Corbis has displayed the Image on its website for sale since before June 2005 and at least until 2007, possibly even to the present day. Plaintiff characterizes such display as "advertising,"
There is little post-Arrington case law addressing the sale of images as a use in trade, and the parties have identified no case law directly addressing the question of advertising for sale of images for use in a lawful manner, which commonly will involve some display or circulation of the images themselves. However, even before the 1983 amendment of Section 51, one court found that a photographer who sent photographs along with a related article to many companies in the hope of getting the (admittedly newsworthy) article published was not liable under Section 51 because such circulation was a essential part of the process of publication. "[T]he protection of the necessary steps in the process of publishing the author's work, precludes liability for the exhibition of . . . photographs, prior to their actual publication." Costlow v. Cusimano,
Indeed, the argument against liability under Section 51 for such advertising is stronger now than it was when Costlow was decided. In amending Section 51 after Arrington, the state legislature clearly intended to protect the trade of selling or licensing images. If the display of images as a form of advertisement for their sale or licensing were forbidden under Section 51, a licensing company might find itself liable for damages even where its sales were for use in a lawful manner and it would thus otherwise not be liable under Section 51. This would defeat the purpose of the "use in a lawful manner" exception. I therefore find that the display of the Image in advertising for sale for use in a lawful manner is also excepted from liability under Section 51. Since, as discussed above, the use made of this Image by the NGC Defendants was lawful, and there is nothing in the record here to indicate that Corbis intended to offer the Image for unlawful use, Corbis's display of the Image on its website does not violate Section 51.
Summary judgment is therefore granted to Corbis on the second count.
III. Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment
Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment against all defendants on the first count and against Corbis on the second count. For the same reasons that I have granted summary judgment on these counts to defendants, I deny summary judgment to plaintiff on all counts.
IV. Plaintiff's Statement Under Local Civil Rule 56.1
Finally, it should be noted that plaintiff's "Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts Answering Defendants' Joint Statement of Facts and Supporting Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment as to Liability" substantially fails to meet the requirements of Local Civil Rule 56.1, which specifies:
Plaintiff has not followed the format directed by Rule 56.1. More importantly, while not claiming that issues of fact preclude summary judgment on liability, plaintiff frequently "denies knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth or falsity of defendants' statements of fact (e.g., Plaintiffs Rule 56.1 Statement p. 2 at ¶ 4), which is not sufficient to create an issue of fact for Rule 56 purposes. Aztar Corp. v. NY Entm't, LLC,
Defendants have requested, pursuant to Rule 56.1(c), that, as a result of plaintiffs noncompliance, their own Rule 56.1 statement be deemed admitted in its entirety.
For the reasons discussed above, all defendants' motions for summary judgment
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