Academic Careers Program

William McGerveran

New York University School of Law, JD 2002
Carleton College, BA 1992

There’s nothing wrong with a little shrewd planning. That was what Bill McGeveran realized when he was a law student at NYU and thinking that in the far off horizon, he might like to teach law.  “I followed my own interests,” he said, “but I strategically channeled them into areas that were going to be useful on the academic job market. It’s worth thinking about it for students who are pursuing academic tracks.”  When he started working on legal scholarship as a fellow with NYU’s Institute of Judicial Administration, his attention was sparked by watching the spread of the internet in the mid-to-late 1990s, and he realized it was going to create new legal frontiers.

McGeveran: “I followed my own interests,” he said, “but I strategically channeled them into areas that were going to be useful on the academic job market.”

After graduating from NYU, McGeveran clerked, then worked as an intellectual property litigator, and was a resident fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, where he and a couple of colleagues started an "Info/Law" blog, available at blogs.law.harvard.edu/infolaw. Prior to accepting the fellowship, McGeveran completed an academic job search with the help of the Academic Careers Program, and had been offered a position at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he is currently an associate professor.

McGeveran is writing and researching in two areas; the first concerns the data privacy implications of “social marketing,” which is the use of social media like Facebook for promotional purposes.  Facebook and other social networks are exploring ways to let advertisers send messages revealing customers’ browsing and buying patterns to their online friends in the hopes of generating new sales. McGeveran says that though this feels “creepy and intrusive,” it is legal. “This kind of advertising is in the neighborhood of a bunch of areas of law but not squarely in any single one,” McGeveran notes.  It seems like an invasion of privacy to have retailers “watching” you while you sit in your kitchen and browse for luxury vacations at 3:00 am. But in fact, tracking information about what you buy and like, and sharing that information with other retailers is a longstanding practice that doesn’t violate privacy laws in the US. So, then, what about the issue of companies illicitly downloading tracking software onto your computer?  Laws forbidding the downloading of surveillance software are “piecemeal and reactive,” says McGeveran, who observes that “tracking is more effectively prevented by installing firewalls” than seeking legal redress. A surprising area of law that McGeveran argues might cover social marketing is related to trademark law—with you as the trademark.  “Celebrities have rights of trademark and endorsement—you can’t slap a celebrity’s face on some product and say they like it—but this doesn’t work that well for individuals,” he says. McGeveran believes, however, that this is one way, perhaps the only way right now, for ordinary citizens to have legal grounds to opt out of social marketing. 

A surprising area of law that McGeveran argues might cover social marketing is related to trademark law—with you as the trademark.

His second area of interest is what he deems “more straightforward intellectual property” and was sparked in part by the scholarship of NYU professors Rochelle Dreyfuss and Diane Zimmerman. Even though individuals might have the legal right to use a trademark for artistic or expressive purposes, they are often bullied by large companies. “Even when corporate lawyers are confident that they would lose a case, some will send cease and desist letters,” McGeveran notes. “And people who don’t have resources to fight capitulate.”  As online connectivity makes sharing creative works easy via youtube and personal websites, corporate saber rattling and threatening litigation is no doubt more frequent.

As exciting as McGeveran’s work in such a dynamic and ever changing area is, hearing implications of internet use is enough to make you want to never check email or shop for a sweater again.  McGeveran, however, is cheerful and forward looking. “The problem is not so much that people are keeping track of what you like—that’s been around for ages. We have a vibrant internet where people are exchanging information like suggesting books to one another, and you want to prevent a situation where endorsing becomes so extreme people will no longer perceive recommendations as genuine.  Your friends’ voices will become spam.”