INDIANAPOLIS -- The legal fight between the estate of James Dean and the online social network Twitter can't be told in 140 characters.
The roots of the legal saga date to 2009, when a fan of the Hoosier-born actor set up the Twitter account @JamesDean. His goal was to share a love for the Hollywood icon, who starred in the movies "Rebel Without a Cause," "Giant" and "East of Eden."
Now, Twitter and the anonymous owner of @JamesDean are targets of a lawsuit alleging unauthorized use of Dean's name and image. Both are trademarked by James Dean Inc., which represents Dean heirs who consider his name and likeness a valuable commodity.
The lawsuit highlights the lag that often occurs between the law and the dynamic world of social media, said Gerard N. Magliocca, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
Not all potential legal issues, he explained, can be predicted or addressed by the law before they come to a head outside a legislative chamber or courtroom.
"This isa first-of-its-kind case, as far as I know," he said.
Magliocca said the federal Anti-Cybersquatting Piracy Act covers the unauthorized use of celebrity names when it comes to Web domains but not Twitter user names, called "handles." As part of the lawsuit, James Dean Inc. wants Twitter to hand over to it the @JamesDean account.
"As social media becomes more important as a source of advertising," Magliocca said, "people will be more concerned about who owns what."
The lawsuit initially was filed in Hamilton Superior Court. But attorneys for Twitter, whose more than 241 million users flood cyberspace with 500 million tweets a day, want it moved to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The request is being sought because of the potential amount of damages at stake and federal issues such as trademark infringement.
The transfer motion was submitted Friday, one day before what would have been Dean's 83rd birthday.
To fans, Dean is frozen in time. He will forever be the young, rebellious movie star who died at the age of 24 in a 1955 car crash. And that powerful image remains a highly valuable commodity nearly 60 years later, vigorously protected by Carmel-based celebrity licensing agency CMG Worldwide.
"CMG's clients have valuable intellectual property vested in their name, image and likeness," Mark Roesler, CMG's chairman and CEO, said in a statement to The Indianapolis Star. "For these reasons, CMG is trying to recover the James Dean Twitter account which directly bears our client's name, which the public would look to for authorized and verified statements and representations by the people who most care about our client, namely, our client's family."
Roesler said CMG clients, such as James Dean Inc., have worked for decades to build and protect their brands. Despite those efforts, he said, Twitter is letting individuals use valuable copyrighted images and other legally protected intellectual property without the owners' permission.
Attorneys for Twitter and James Dean Inc. did not return calls from The Star.
In email exchanges with The Star, the man behind the @JamesDean account declined to give his name but said his account "is strictly a fan account, as can be seen from the tweets."
The account bio features a picture of a brooding Dean in a white T-shirt and red jacket. It says: The King of Cool, New York City, Hollywood.
Past posts have included comments such as:
"Seeing James Dean changed my life the same way hearing the Beatles did. If anyone could legitimately say, 'I'm you,' it was James Dean."
"James Dean's motorcycle goes on public display Nov. 23 as part of the Indiana State Museum's 'Eternal James Dean' exhibit."
"The lasting fascination with James Dean stems from the unusual potency of his work, as well as the way he lived his life."
The lawsuit also names four other "John Doe" defendants who have Twitter accounts using variations on Dean's name and his image, but the main focus is on @JamesDean because it uses the name CMG wants to start its own official Dean account.
The man behind the account said he wanted to remain anonymous because CMG and James Dean Inc. do not, to his knowledge, have his name. He is identified only as one of five "John Does" named in the lawsuit.
"I have never tried in any way to profit from it," he said. "I started the account because I am a longtime James Dean fan and have a connection with him."
Dean grew up in Fairmount, Ind., about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis. He graduated from Fairmount High in 1949 before leaving for California and then New York to pursue his acting career.
The lawsuit filed Dec. 31 in Hamilton Superior Court notes that James Dean Inc., an Indiana -based corporation set up by his family, is the exclusive owner of the name, likeness, voice, rights of publicity and endorsement, worldwide trademarks and all other intellectual property "of the late internationally recognized movie star, James Dean."
Documents filed with the lawsuit say CMG Worldwide, which represents other celebrity images such as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, has attempted "on numerous occasions since Oct. 11, 2012" to make Twitter take action to block and identify owners of the unauthorized accounts. Those accounts could give the impression, the lawsuit said, that the users have permission from James Dean Inc. (JDI) or CMG and "result in immeasurable and irreparable damage to JDI."
Copies of email exchanges between CMG and Twitter officials, which are included with the lawsuit, show CMG and JDI contend the accounts also violate Twitter's policy for fan accounts. The lawsuit says such accounts should be clearly designated as a "fan page" or in some other way make clear that it is not officially associated with Dean or JDI.
In an undated response, a Twitter representative told CMG that officials "researched the (@JamesDean) account and determined that it is not in violation of Twitter's Trademark Policy. The account is not being used in a way that is misleading or confusing with regard to its brand, location or business affiliation."
Twitter officials added they do not have a "username reservation policy." The social networking site, which went public in November and is now valued at more than $800 million, lets users exchange short, 140-character messages called tweets.
Maglicco, the IU law professor, said the lawsuit plows into virgin legal ground. He added a First Amendment argument also could be raised by the operator.
"It may come down," he said, "to what is the goal of the person with that account."
If the person is not using it for commercial purposes, he added, the common law "right of publicity" that James Dean Inc. asserts in the lawsuit may not apply.
"Here's the problem," Maglicco said. "We really don't know who owns it or what their motivation is."