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"Spider-Man" can alter Times Square

A federal judge in New York upholds the rights of filmmakers to superimpose digital images on real-life buildings in their movies.

Upholding the rights of filmmakers to superimpose digital images on real-life buildings in their movies, a federal judge in New York has thrown out a suit filed by billboard and building owners against the creators of the "Spider-Man" movie.

In a three-page ruling issued last week, Judge Richard Owen questioned claims that altering the billboards in the movies violated trademarks and amounted to trespassing.

Several billboard and building owners, including Sherwood 48 Associates and Super Sign, filed suit in April against Sony and other companies involved in making and distributing "Spider-Man," claiming their prime Times Square space becomes less valuable if they can't guarantee customers exclusive rights both on and off screen. In the "Spider-Man" movie and trailers, ads for companies such as Cingular Wireless and USA Today have been superimposed over those of Samsung and NBC.

The judge disagreed with the billboard owners' claims, however, saying the digital alterations are protected free speech. "What exists here is for artistic purposes a mixture of a fictionally and actually depicted Times Square...this has First Amendment protection," Owen wrote.

The judge also struck down the companies' claims that Sony trespassed by using lasers to digitally film the buildings. "Light beams bounce off plaintiff's three buildings day and night in the city that never sleeps," he wrote.

Because digital technology makes it so easy to alter real-life scenes, the practice is becoming more and more common in films, sports broadcasts and other mediums. The practice is sure to lead to more lawsuits and clashes over product placement and digital advertising. USA Today said it didn't pay for the advertising in "Spider-Man." Cingular said it has a marketing deal with Sony tied to the film.

Filmmakers sometimes change billboards on real-life buildings because, among other reasons, the actual billboard would date the movie. In "Spider-Man," the building that contains Sherwood's billboards also was moved uptown.

Sherwood was involved in a similar suit a few years ago. In 1999, the company sued CBS after the network covered the existing NBC logo with its own during a New Year's Eve broadcast. The companies settled out of court.