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Apple sued over 1984 commercial

Mashed up Mac ad latest copyright abuser

When Apple's award-winning '1984' commercial was used to create an anti-Hillary Clinton video on YouTube, we waited for some warning from Apple about its abused copyright.

It's a surprise, then, to learn that Apple itself was censored for abuse of copyright when the TV ad first aired before the launch of the company's Macintosh computer.

The copyright holder of George Orwell's classic novel '1984' may sue over the video that used Apple's Macintosh advertisement to jab at Senator Hillary Clinton, a lawyer for Rosenblum Productions has said. And she revealed that Apple was also served notice about using Orwellian imagery 23 years ago.

"We're not filing [a lawsuit] at this point; we're monitoring the situation," said William Coulson, who represents Rosenblum Productions. "But we certainly reserve the right to do so in the future." Coulson did not specify whom Rosenblum might sue - the video's creator, YouTube Inc. or both.

The firm has defended the 1984 franchise at least twice before. After Apple aired its Mac introductory ad during Super Bowl XVII, Rosenblum sent a "cease and desist" letter to the computer maker, she said in yesterday's statement. "When the Apple 'Big Brother' television commercial was aired during the 1984 Super Bowl telecast, we immediately objected to this unauthorized commercial use of the novel, and sent a 'cease-and-desist' letter both to Apple and to its ad agency," said Gina Rosenblum, president of Rosenblum Productions. "The commercial never aired on television again."

(Actually it had already aired once previously: Apple paid $10 for it to run at 1am on December 15, 1983, at a small TV station called KMVT in Idaho – thereby ensuring that the commercial would qualify for that year's advertising awards. A 30-second version then played at cinemas in January 1984.)

The 74-second video, a mashup that substitutes the droning Big Brother of the original Apple television ad with images and words from the New York Democrat, has been viewed on YouTube's video sharing network 4 million times. Apple's original ad was seen by 96 million during Super Bowl XVIII.

Clinton is a rival of Senator Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The video's creator, Phil de Vellis, who was fired from his position at Blue State Digital, a Washington technology firm that specializes in political campaign support, said he made the video on his Mac in a single weekend afternoon.

Last week Rosenblum rattled a legal sabre. "The political ad copies a prior commercial infringement of our copyright," said Rosenblum in a statement. "We recognize the legal issues inherent under the First Amendment and the copyright law as to political expression of opinion, but we want the world at large to know that we take our copyright ownership of one of the world's great novels very seriously."

Rosenblum acquired the copyright to 1984 from the Orwell estate and Sonia Orwell, the widow of George Orwell, in 1981. The novel remains in copyright until at least 2044.

In 2001, Rosenblum settled out of court with CBS Television and Viacom Inc. over copyright and trademark infringement charges against the reality program Big Brother. The financial details of the settlement were not disclosed, said Coulson, who also represented Rosenblum in that case. "But it was mutually satisfactory to both parties," he said.

Apple has ignored requests for comment on its position over the de Vellis video.

Computerworld's Gregg Keizer contributed to this article.

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