This posting was written by John W. Arden.
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the Ninth Circuit’s application of the “single publication rule” to an allegedly unauthorized endorsement posted on a website in 2003, effectively barring on statute of limitations grounds Chuck Yeager’s claims brought under California right of privacy and publicity laws and the federal Lanham Act. The high court today denied the petition for certiorari in Yeager v. Bowlin, Docket No. 12-1047, filed February 22, 2013.
In 2008, well known pilot Yeager brought an action against Connie and Ed Bowlin, claiming that statements on their “Aviation Autographs” website violated California’s common law right of privacy and right of publicity statute and that the use of his name, likeness, and identity to market memorabilia violated the Lanham Act. The federal district court in Sacramento dismissed the claims, applying the single publication rule, holding that the claims accrued in 2003, and concluding that the claims were time-barred.
In an opinion addressing the California claims, the Ninth Circuit ruled that there was no evidence in the record that the Bowlins added or changed any statements about Yeager after October 2003 and thus the right of privacy and publicity claims were barred by the two-year statute of limitations.
In a separate unpublished memorandum decision, the Ninth Circuit held that Yeager’s Lanham Act false endorsement claim also was barred by the single-publication rule. The appeals court acknowledged that it had not resolved whether a statute of limitations defense applies to claims under the Lanham Act, which are of “equitable character.” However, the court declined to address the issue on the theory that Yeager waived this argument by failing to raise it in the district court in his opposition to a defense motion for summary judgment.
The single publication rule limits tort claims premised on mass communication to the original publication date. While created to apply to print publications, the single publication rule also governs publications on the Internet, according to the appeals court. “In print and on the internet, statements are generally considered ‘published’ when they are first made available to the public.”
Under the single publication rule, the statute of limitations is reset when a statement is republished. A statement in a printed publication is republished when it is reprinted in something that is not part of the same “single integrated publication.” One general rule is that a statement is republished when it is repeated or recirculated to a new audience. As previously held by the Ninth Circuit, website operators did not republish a statement by simply continuing to host the website.
Yeager argued that the website was republished—and the statute of limitations restarted—every time the website was added to or revised, even if the new content did not reference or depict Yeager. The Ninth Circuit disagreed. “We reject Yeager’s argument and hold that, under California law, a statement on a website is not republished unless the statement itself is substantively altered or added to, or the website is directed to a new audience.”
In his petition for review, Yeager asked: “Does California’s single-publication rule govern the accrual of a Lanham Act claim arising from a web-based merchant’s refusal to remove a celebrity’s unauthorized endorsement from a merchant’s website?”