February 23, 2010 / 5:58 AM / 10 years ago

TMZ sued over leaked Debbie Rowe interview

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - TMZ is being sued for broadcasting allegedly stolen and confidential footage of an interview with Debbie Rowe soon after her ex-husband, Michael Jackson, died last June.

Debbie Rowe, Michael Jackson's ex-wife and mother of two of his children, passes through a magnetometer at the Santa Barbara county courthouse April 28, 2005, in Santa Maria, California. Jackson, 46, is charged with molesting a boy, then 13, at Neverland, plying the youth with alcohol in order to abuse him and conspiring to commit false imprisonment, child abduction and extortion. He faces more than 20 years in prison if convicted. REUTERS/Aaron Lambert/POOL

The details of this lawsuit filed Monday in California District Court by F. Marc Schaffel Prods. raise interesting questions about the gossip Web site’s news operation, copyright issues, and the boundaries between an entertainment clip and a fair-use news product.

In the complaint, the plaintiff claims to be the owner of a 2003 filmed interview with Debbie Rowe. Some portions of the interview were aired in 2003, but others were held back as private and confidential, subject to a joint consent agreement between the interviewer and interviewee.

After Jackson was indicted for child molestation in December 2003, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff obtained and executed a search warrant on Schaffel’s home and seized the interview. Two years later, the County Sheriff represented that he returned the property and hadn’t released the “confidential outtakes” to anyone.

But last July, TMZ broadcast those confidential outtakes that included a conversation where Rowe talks about needing sedatives. The plaintiff says that Rowe’s comments were made in the context of a joke about stage fright, but taken by TMZ to tie past drug use to Jackson’s death from a prescription-drug overdose.

After TMZ aired the interview, Schaffel and Rowe demanded that the confidential outtakes be removed. TMZ first claimed the video was sourced from a British TV station, but then said it came from the Santa Barbara Sherriff’s Department. The plaintiff says that when confronted, TMZ rescinded the story and claimed its source was confidential.

Schaffel is now seeking damages from TMZ over copyright infringement and conversion. Schaffel says the confidential outtakes have “an estimated value of potentially millions of dollars, the exact amount of which shall be proved at trial.”

TMZ may try to claim that its use of the clip was “fair use” and the court may apply the “four factor” test and look into the purpose and character of the use. Does an allegedly stolen entertainment clip need to be cleared or does any broadcaster have the right to broadcast footage in the name of “news” without need to obtain consent? Will a judge apply the rare so-called “fifth” factor of fair use that takes a moral evaluation of the goodness or badness of TMZ into account? And does TMZ as a news outlet get statutory protection from revealing sources of news if they are trying to protect allegedly stolen media?

These will be questions posed in an interesting case that puts TMZ’s news-gathering operation under the microscope.

Schaffel also sued Fox News last month for airing the interview. Details of a possible lawsuit against TMZ were first reported by Hollywood Reporter blogger Roger Friedman last August.

The complaint was filed by Howard King at King, Holmes, Paterno & Berliner.

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