Trayvon Martin Case and Intellectual Property Issues

This case has been heart-breaking on so many levels, no matter your position on the social issues that are implicated. Whether you believe Zimmerman  acted in self-defense or created a situation where someone’s beloved son was killed while minding his own business, carrying a Snapple and some Skittles, there is no question that many lives have been destroyed, careers ruined, and, most tragic by far,  a child with a promising future is dead.  It is not for me to decide what happened in this case because I wasn’t there and I don’t know. I have friends with different views on Zimmerman’s actions and motives, but all I can think about is Trayvon’s parents, and the parents of other young African-American boys or men, who live in  fear that the same thing could happen to their child. I have no answers and nothing but my heart-felt sympathies to offer to these families.

I have been following this case and the steadily rising outcry coming from all corners of the map, from men and women of all ages, colors, and political stripes. Like all the big stories of the last five years or so, social media is playing a prominent role. Social media remains the most effective medium by which passionate people can spread the word about the things they care about–reaching like-minded folks and gaining enough critical mass to get noticed and make a difference. It reminds me of one of my favorite children’s book, “Horton Hears a Who,” in which the heartless Kangaroo and the Wickersham Brothers are going to annihilate Who-ville unless sweet Horton can convince them that he is not crazy and there really are little people living on that grain of dust.  Horton tries to whip everyone on the dust speck into a frenzy, begging them to make more and more noise until their voices reach a critical mass  that the Wickershams can actually hear. And so it is with social media and the things that matter to people—more and more voices join until they are finally HEARD.

Anyhoo, this brings me to the legal issues (you didn’t think I would ever get there, did you?) Some guy in Los Angeles tweeted what he thought was the address of George Zimmerman, with some pejorative commentary, ominously telling people to “reach out and touch him,” and identified Zimmerman as George W. Zimmerman, when he is actually George Michael Zimmerman.  He also encouraged his large Facebook and Twitter following to spread the address far and wide. He tweeted it to many celebrities, such as Spike Lee and Will Smith, asking them to repost. Spike Lee retweeted it to his 240,000 twitter followers. Problem was, however, the address was not correct. It actually belonged to an elderly couple that had no relationship whatsoever to George Michael Zimmerman. This couple is now understandably terrified for their safety. There are a lot of furious, worked up people out there, who could be capable of violence. If something should happen to this couple, Spike Lee and whoever else tweeted it, could potentially be facing very serious liability. A court could easily determine that mindlessly passing on information that is false, without bothering to check it out, is negligence, if not recklessness. Even if no physical harm comes to these folks, a decent plaintiff’s lawyer would throw in intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light and other invasion of privacy claims, and many other causes of action I can’t even think of right now.

Point is: keep your wits about you, no matter how passionate you are about a situation or an injustice. Don’t just mindlessly retweet information unless you have independently verified that it is true. Spike Lee and Will Smith would be easy targets with deep pockets but we would all be well-advised to “Snopes” anything that could potentially create a dangerous or embarrassing situation for another before cavalierly pressing the RT button. Better yet, don’t re-tweet or re-post anything, true or not, that could potentially bring harm of any kind to another person. There are other ways to get your point across that are less fraught with liability (and bad karma).

In another IP-related facet to the Trayvon Martin story, Trayvon’s family recently filed two trademark applications for Trayvon-related trademarks. Sybrina Fulton is seeking marks for the phrases “I Am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon,” according to filings made last week with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In both instances, Fulton, 46, is seeking the trademarks for use on “Digital materials, namely, CDs and DVDs featuring Trayvon Martin,” and other products. I am surprised there are no applications for clothing because I would have expected to see  Trayvon hoodies and other “message-wear.”  I’m sure many will say she is money-hungy and crass to file these applications, yet obviously it will take financing to advance the message that his family is  trying to spread. Licensing income from Trayvon-related merchandise could potentially bankroll their activism and prevent persons with motives that are possibly less noble from profiting financially from his death. It’s a savvy move but will undoubtedly add fuel to this wildly raging fire that is the sad story of Trayvon Martin.


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