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Celebrity gossip website TMZ is now facing a copyright infringement lawsuit for its posting of a 2003 video interview with Michael Jackson’s ex-wife and the mother of his two oldest children, Debbie Rowe. The complaint was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by F. Marc Schaffel Productions. Portions of the interview were released and aired in 2003, while others were retained to be kept “private and confidential and to be released only upon the joint consent of Schaffel and Rowe,” according to the complaint. It was these unreleased portions, in which Rowe discusses the use of sedatives (though, according to the plaintiff, the discussion took place within the context of a joke regarding her own stage-fright), that were posted on TMZ shortly after the death of Michael Jackson last July.
A similar suit was also filed by F. Marc Schaffel Productions against Fox News earlier this year for its broadcasting of the same interview.
TMZ’s source of the interview footage is unclear. While the website originally claimed that it received the video from a British news source, it later claimed that it came from someone within the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff had obtained the video during a search of Jackson’s home in 2003 in connection with the child molestation charges filed against him, but later stated that he returned and preserved the confidentiality of the interview footage. Nevertheless, upon demands from Rowe and Schaffel, TMZ removed the video from its website and claimed that its source was confidential.
With the present popularity of TMZ and similar celebrity gossip websites, and their apparent willingness to post anything and everything without much discretion, this suit poses some interesting questions. For example, are these sites news sources with respect to which the dissemination of information of interest to the public constitutes fair use? Or, is their primary purpose entertainment, subject to more stringent copyright infringement analysis and less likely to be considered fair use?
– Maurie Donnelly
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