Twitter in Legal War Over @JamesDean (Exclusive)

James Dean, "East of Eden" (1955)
Courtesy of Everett Collection

A man with bad eyesight and a yen for speed, he died in a car crash in 1955 at 24, then got an Oscar nomination as the young hero in Elia Kazan's screen version of John Steinbeck's novel. He got a second posthumous nom for 1956's "Giant."

James Dean died before he could ever tweet. Now, the iconic movie star is at the center of a potentially groundbreaking legal dispute against Twitter Inc., defending itself over its refusal to do anything about the anonymous individual who has registered @JamesDean.

The lawsuit was engineered by CMG Worldwide, which manages the commercial estates of many dead celebrities and runs the Dean licensing empire. According to CMG president Mark Roesler, his firm has spent more than a year attempting to convince Twitter to shut down @JamesDean, but the social media company has been "extremely uncooperative."

As a result, Roesler's company has filed a complaint in Indiana state court alleging various causes of action, including misappropriation of publicity rights. On Friday, Twitter had the lawsuit removed to federal court.

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Over the years, there have been many disputes over Twitter handles, but not quite like this one. The social media site has an "impersonation policy" that forbids accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner as well as a "trademark policy," but apparently the service has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to dead celebrities.

@JamesDean makes no mention that it isn't officially sanctioned and, as of the time of writing, counts about 8,000 followers. The tweets often refer to James Dean in the third person.

In looking to protect Dean's name and likeness, CMG's James Dean Inc. hopes to exploit Indiana's publicity rights statute, which is one of the most generous in the nation toward celebrities. Among other things, it extends the benefit of likeness rights to the statutory heirs of a deceased person. It has helped CMG turn James Dean into a brand that commands an estimated $3-5 million annually in licensing.

The plaintiff is also asserting trademark infringement, false endorsement, unfair competition, conversion and violation of the Indiana Crime Victims' Act. At least for now, there is no allegation of cybersquatting. But the plaintiff is also suing John Doe defendants in an attempt to punish the Twitter user(s) responsible for setting up the account. An injunction and unspecified monetary damages are demanded.

Twitter hasn't responded yet to a request for comment, but according to Roesler, the company has said in communications that it doesn't believe the account is in violation of its trademark policy. Roesler points to Twitter's "parody, commentary and fan account policy," which requires that avatars not be trademarks or logos, that account names should not take the exact name of the subject and that bios should identify the purpose of the account. He also says that out of the "thousands" of dead celebrities he represents, "nobody has more trademark protection than James Dean."

Potential defenses in this lawsuit include the First Amendment, and Twitter could attempt to show that use of James Dean was transformative and has artistic relevance. For now, in its removal notice, Twitter merely says it "strongly contests liability and does not believe Plaintiff is entitled to any relief whatsoever."

Tomorrow would have been James Dean's 83rd birthday.

Twitter: @eriqgardner