Nearly 60 years after his death, James Dean is still capable of generating news. For my readers who are: a. not yet in their 60’s; or b. not movie geeks like me, here is a little background. Dean was an Indiana native who starred in 3 movies in the 1950’s -- Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant. In Rebel he played a misunderstood juvenile delinquent. The movie featured a game of “chicken” in which a character drove a car over a cliff.
Ironically, Dean died on September 30, 1955, when his Porsche 550 Spyder plowed into another car on Highway 466 in California. He was 24. Dean’s enigmatic performances and his dramatic death created a legend wrapped around a myth. In 1974 the Eagles recorded “James Dean” – a tribute to the long dead star.
Fast forward to the present and the legend apparently lives on. James Dean, Inc. – the company that owns the intellectual property associated with all things James Dean - has filed a lawsuit in an Indiana state court against Twitter and five “John Doe” defendants alleging that the Twitter handle “@JamesDean” infringes the James Dean trademark and violates the company’s right of publicity. The suit also asks Twitter to identify the folks behind the Twitter handle. Thus far, Twitter has declined to do so. Twitter recently removed the case to federal court.
Twitter has also declined to disable the account. In Twitter’s view, the handle is not being used “in a way that is misleading or confusing with regard to the its brand, location or business affiliation." This may have something to do with the fact that Dean has been, you know, dead for about 60 years. It may also have to do with the fact that the comments on the site are really in the nature of fans talking about Dean’s career and his impact. It doesn’t look like there’s been any effort to use Dean’s likeness to sell anyone anything.
And while that’s a problem for James Dean, Inc., it is also gives them an additional argument – Twitter has specific guidelines for “fan” sites. And those guidelines require that the username not be an exact replica of the trademark. The guidelines also require that the bio affiliated with the user name include a statement to distinguish it from the real trademark holder – such as “fan account” or “not affiliated with.” The complaint contends that the @JamesDean account does not comply with any of those guidelines. (Editor's Note - it appears the site now does carry a "not affiliated with" disclaimer)
Of course, the mere fact that Twitter didn’t require a user to follow its guidelines doesn’t necessarily give a third party a right to sue. The question remains whether the @JamesDean account really does harm anyone.
We will see how this plays out. But apparently, rebels never die. And one final note – according to the lawsuit, James Dean, Inc. uses CMG Worldwide as its licensing agency/enforcement arm. CMG represents, among others, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth and Chuck Berry. Apparently, the world of dead celebrities is a goldmine. Who knew?