So, by now you’ve heard about the various hacked and leaked photos of various celebrities, often in varying states of undress. You knew that legal action was going to follow, but… did anyone actually expect Google would be the initial target?
Lawyer to the stars Marty Singer has sent a very angry, but legally shaky letter to Google, claiming the company is facing a $100 million (or more) lawsuit in failing to remove the photos. There are some oddities here. First, Singer fails to name anyone he’s actually representing, just generally referring to representing “over a dozen” of the victims. From there, Singer sort of implies copyright violations, but doesn’t fully go there, perhaps because it’s likely that the women in question don’t hold the copyright on many of the photos. In at least one case — involving photos of Kate Upton — it’s been widely reported that Google only removed about half of the links sent in a DMCA notice from Upton’s boyfriend, baseball star Justin Verlander, leading to quite reasonable speculation that Google is properly complying with the DMCA in only taking down photos where it’s clear there’s a legitimate copyright claim.
Singer’s threat letter is all over the place, partially arguing copyright infringement, partially arguing failure to follow the DMCA safe harbors and partially arguing straight up morality concerning blocking links to the images or videos containing the images. Let’s be clear: it’s quite reasonable for those who were victims here to be upset and seek to do something about it, but it’s bizarre to pin the blame on Google, which is merely the search engine that is helping to index what other people have done. Furthermore, while it may seem appealing to ask Google to make a pure moral judgment on whether or not it’s “right” for these photos to be accessible, it has no legal obligation to do so, outside of the copyright question — and Google has a pretty good history of showing that its copyright lawyers are very quick at taking down content that they truly deem infringing.
Frankly, this threat seems like a lot more bluster than legal certainty. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a lawsuit eventually result — Singer likes being in the limelight — but it’s difficult to see on what legitimate legal basis a lawsuit would be filed. It’s possible that Google may have missed a legitimate copyright-covered image from a takedown, but given its rather sophisticated handling of DMCA takedown notices, it seems unlikely that Google made many mistakes on this one. This just seems like a “Steve Dallas lawsuit” in which you go through all the options of who you can sue, and then just go after the big company because it’s the one that has the money.