The creators of the popular podcast S-Town are being sued by the estate of the late John B. McLemore (pictured) for commercial exploitation of his life.
Craig Cargile, administrator of McLemore's estate, filed the suit Thursday in Bibb, Ala.; the titular "S-Town" where McLemore was from and where the events of the podcast take place. Cargile claims that the broadcast reveals intimate details of McLemore's life without permission of McLemore or the estate, and is asking for profits generated from advertising sales, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.
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Those intimate details revealed by podcast creator Brian Reed include McLemore's suicide ideation, financial affairs, and intimate relationships, including those with men. Many of these details, as explained on the podcast, were told to Reed "off-the-record," including information about McLemore's affair with a closeted man married to a woman.
While requests for information conveyed to a journalist to be "off-the-record" are not legally binding, allegations of never acquiring written consent hold legal weight.
The impetus for the podcast was when McLemore, in 2012, asked the radio show This American Life -- which later co-produced the podcast -- to investigate a suspected murder. While Reed learned this murder never happened, he continued interviewing the very colorful McLemore, as well as others in his life, and compiled his materials for the podcast. The suit asserts that not only did Reed fail to get permission to publish those intimate details of McLemore's life, he failed to get permission to profit commercially off his life at all.
"None of these 'mysteries' are matters of legitimate public concern, nor were these matters that McLemore contacted Reed to investigate or write about," the attorneys wrote in the complaint. "Instead, they generally involved the most private matters of McLemore's life."
If the plaintiff's claims are true, then Reed had violated McLemore's right to publicity, as protected under the Alabama Right of Publicity Act of 2015.
Under this act, which affords right to publicity to both public and private individuals, McLemore retains the right to publicity even 55 years after his death (after death, the right is transferred to his estate).
The act grants some exceptions for use of a person's image or identity, including the use of McLemore's image/identity "in connection with a news, public affairs, or public interest account" (which the plaintiff asserts is not the case with the podcast) or if it is "part of an artistic or expressive work," a defense that Reed and other defendants may resort to in this case.
S-Town's executive producer Julie Snyder told Vox, "I won't comment on pending litigation other than to say that this lawsuit lacks merit. S-Town is produced consistent with the highest journalistic standards, and we intend to defend against this lawsuit aggressively."