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A Hiccup of Copyright and Intellectual Privacy

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Bucks County, PAOn the surface it may appear like a hiccup in communication. Nonetheless, a dispute between the family of a girl plagued with hiccups and the manufacturer of a hiccup aid has escalated into a lawsuit alleging intellectual property infringement, and copyright infringement.

It's a compelling story, and anyone who may have recalled seeing Jennifer Mee on NBC's TODAY show last year would have been both intrigued and sympathetic over the plight of the then-15-year-old who started hiccupping one day, and didn't stop for five weeks.

Verbal AgreementThe only time the hiccups stopped was when she spoke, as evidenced during her appearance on the program. Host Matt Lauer implored the audience to contact TODAY with any suggestions for the girl that might serve to relieve her incessant hiccupping.

According to the text of a lawsuit filed by the Robidoux family against Hic-Cup Ltd., President Michelle Ehlinger contacted the family February 19th 2007 following Jennifer's appearance on TODAY and offered her the use of one of their 'Hic-Cups'—a device designed to ease hiccups. In many cases, hiccups stop completely.

It is alleged that along with the Hic-Cup, the girl was promised a "generous and lucrative contract" and an "immediate cash signing bonus," according to the wording of the lawsuit.

Later when her hiccupping virtually stopped, thanks in part to the 'Hic-Cup,' Jennifer was promised via a verbal agreement a sum of $2500 in exchange for mentioning the Hic-Cup during a specific television appearance. The program was not identified, but on March 3rd of last year Mee returned to the TODAY show to described her various attempts to stop the hiccupping, including the use of the aforementioned 'Hic-Cup.' The fee was duly paid for the mention on the un-named television program.

The Robidoux family claims there was never any formal agreement beyond the verbal commitment to mention the product on television, which was considered a one-time-only event. However, the family claims that Hic-Cup continued to use Jennifer's name and photographs in sales brochures, advertisements, the Internet and commercials on radio and television.

The allegation, if proven true, would suggest an unauthorized use of an individual's likeness for the purpose of marketing a product.

The company denies any wrongdoing, and insists that permission to use Jennifer's name and image had been secured. A spokesperson for the company did acknowledge that four thumbnail images of Jennifer Mee had been used on the Hic-Cup website—but those images were immediately taken down upon learning on the Robidoux litigation against them.

The dispute, therefore, appears to hinge on the $2500 payment made to Jennifer Mee, who is the daughter of Christopher and Rachael Robidoux. Hic-Cup claims to have had permission, and had secured the necessary rights to use her image. Jennifer's family, in contrast, claims that the $2500 fee was a one-time fee for the mention of the product on a specific television program, a function that was duly fulfilled. Beyond that, there was no agreement, according to court documents.
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Christopher and Rachael Robidoux are suing Hic-Cup Ltd. for invasion of privacy, misappropriation of name and likeness, and breach of contract, as well as unjust enrichment from using Jennifer's name and image. The suit, filed in Bucks County Court in Pennsylvania, seeks in excess of $50,000.

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