Saturday, November 15

Killing Communication: CafePress

In what can only be described as a panicked reaction to an Associated Press story (and perhaps a cease-and-desist letter), CafePress.com placed a hold on and/or removed all merchandise bearing the likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The AP story, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers, reports how the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. is demanding proceeds from the sudden wave of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise depicting the civil rights leader alongside President-Elect Barack Obama (and not alongside Obama for that matter).

CafePress members weren't notified with such a specific reason. Instead, CafePress simply sent a message with its prewritten policy rhetoric: "We recently learned that your CafePress.com account contains material which may not be in compliance with our policies."

As this wasn't the first time I've had to provide expressed documented permission to CafePress over its "hold first, ask later" policy, I e-mailed a brief message back outlining how we have permission for the usage. Doing so usually generates a ticket code and assigns you a "content usage associate," who tends to be a bit more attentive than a form letter. Not today.

Your use of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s likeness may violate his right of publicity. As outlined in our Intellectual Property Rights FAQ's, the Right of Publicity clause makes it unlawful to use another's identity for commercial advantage without permission.

Except, our use of Dr. King's likeness was not employed without permission. Our use of his likeness was in cooperation with the Corporation for National & Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation for the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada in celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. "Day of Service." Affiliated centers, such as the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada, were granted rights to use the image as part of a public service campaign, which is posted here. Our company receives no commercial advantage and confined such usage to the "Day Of Service" image.

Thank you for contacting CafePress.com! I apologize but it is not in our power to restore your images and host them on our site at this time. The only way we can do so, is if you obtain an authorization for commercial resale from his family.

When a company ceases two-way communication with a customer, it's time to consider another company. So while we always appreciated better print quality on paper items, it might be time to consider alternatives prior to an upcoming facelift on an experimental blog and on-demand store.

I might be wrong, but I do not believe for one minute that The King Center meant to block an approved national public service campaign that endears a prolific civil rights leader to a people. And if I am wrong, I will reluctantly start finding another Republican to write about every January.

So how could CafePress have handled this crisis communication issue? More on Monday.

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