Plaintiff Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, a recognized figure in aviation history, filed suit in 2008 against defendants, sellers of aviation-related memorabilia, including items related to or signed by Yeager, alleging that statements referencing him on defendants’ website violated his common-law right to privacy and California’s statutory right to publicity. The district court, applying the single-publication rule, granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, dismissing both claims as untimely under the applicable two-year statute of limitations. No evidence existed that defendants had added any information about Yeager or changed any of the challenged statements about Yeager on their website after October 2003, and the district court found that for the purposes of the statute of limitations Yeager’s claims accrued at that time. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.
According to the court of appeals, the single-publication rule limits tort claims premised on mass communications to a single cause of action that accrues upon the first publication of the communication and applies to statements made on the Internet. Statements are considered published when they are first made available to the public. Under this rule, the statute of limitations is reset when a statement is “republished.” A statement made in print is republished when it is reprinted in something that is not part of the same single integrated publication. For example, a statement made in a hardcover book is republished when it is repeated in a later paperback version. In contrast, a statement made in a daily newspaper is not republished when it appears in later editions of that newspaper. Applying this single-integrated-publication test to the Internet, the Ninth Circuit had previously found that once a defendant publishes a statement on a website, the defendant does not republish the statement by simply continuing to host the website. The court rejected Yeager’s argument that the website is republished each time defendants add to or revise content on their website, even if the new content does not reference or depict Yeager, holding that under California law a statement on a website is not republished unless the statement itself is substantively altered or added to or the website is directed to a new audience.