“Robots again.” That’s how federal appellate judge Alex
Kozinski begins his dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s
decision not to rehear Wendt v. Host International. The
“robots” refers to animatronic replicas of Cliff and Norm
from the TV series Cheers built by an airport bar chain as a
gimmick. The “again” refers to the earlier case of White v.
Samsung, where Samsung ran ads depicting a robot version of
Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White with the tag line
“Longest-running game show, 2012 A.D.” She sued. (To her
credit, however, Ms. White kept her head. She did not turn
into a car and drive over to Samsung headquarters, as was no
doubt her first instinct.)
People suing over robot versions of themselves is just one
of the ways robots make ordinary cases more interesting. As
personal robotics moves toward the multibillion-dollar
Bill Gates and some analysts predict, we are likely to
see more—and more interesting—robot-driven litigation. What
follows is a little tour of robot case law to date.
Wendt and White are examples of torts, such as
"appropriation of likeness," involving the right to
publicity. Robot versions of people also complicate trade
tariffs. According to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the
United States, "[t]oys representing animals or non-human
creatures (for example, robots and monsters)" get different
treatment from toys representing straightforward humans.
The U.S. Court of International Trade once had to sort out
whether various Marvel action figures were human. Robot
Wolverine was a cinch; the parties eventually stipulated to
his categorization as non-human. Others were not so easy.
Today’s figures are even trickier. What if someone tried
to import a Cylon
figurine of Helo and Athena’s daughter on Battlestar
Copyright law presents another context where robot toys
trigger lawsuits. It turns out, for instance, that
“robot-like battle machines … and direct communication
between machine and human brain” are “familiar themes” not
entitled to copyright protection. (“Familiar themes” makes
it sounds almost comforting…) Nor, thank God, does
trademark protect the concept of pitting small robots
against one another in battle.
On the more physical side of things, criminal law gives us
the recent example of Reinhardt v. Fuller. Dave Reinhardt
was holed up in his parent’s house following a dispute over
his inheritance. The local swat team arrived and deployed a
two-and-a-half foot tall robot complete with cameras, a
microphone, a mounted gun, and a “claw… for breaking glass”
to subdue Reinhardt. “Appellant fired four shotgun blasts
at the robot.” He was soon arrested.
Industrial robots have also wrought their share of chaos.
In what is no joking matter, a court denied liability on the
part of the robot manufacturer where a worksite was
improperly secured, “thereby exposing [plaintiffs] to the
danger of injury by being caught in the robot's jaws.”
Amusing, however, is the 1998 case of Robotic Vision
Systems, Inc. v. Cybo Systems, Inc., where an industrial
parts company convinced its manufacturer client to take on
Al Bove and Al Treu, two “robot technicians,” as
installation support. The client gave the robots a shot,
but ended up having to hire a human technician to finish the
I predict that robot-related litigation will only grow. A
personal robot wanders into a neighbors yard collides and
with a toddler. Is this robot like a dog, in which case the
owner may be liable? Or is there a cause of action against
the manufacturer? Experts argue
that the use of intelligent robots may cause us to rethink
the laws of war. Others argue that robots will one day
themselves hold rights and liabilities. The possibilities
are endless. We may even eventually see a robot practice
group akin to today’s practice groups around video games.
Maybe Al Bove and Al Treu could join up. I hear they are
looking for work.
Cast of cases by order of appearance:
Wendt v. Host Intern., Inc., 197 F.3d 1284 (9th Cir. 1999).
White v. Samsung Elec. Am., Inc., 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992)
Toy Biz, Inc. v. U.S., 248 F.Supp.2d 1234 (CIT 2003)
FASA Corp. v. Playmates Toys, Inc., 869 F.Supp. 1334 (N.D.
Robot Wars LLC v. Roski, 51 F.Supp.2d 491, 494 (S.D.N.Y.1999)
Reinhardt v. Feller, 2008 WL 5386802 (E.D. Ca. 2008)
Payne v. ABB Flexible Automation, Inc., 116 F.3d 480 (8th
Robotic Vision Systems, Inc. v. Cybo Systems, Inc., 17
F.Supp.2d 151 (E.D.N.Y. 1998)