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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

For a Good Time Call 555-0123: Liability-Free Phone Numbers for the Entertainment Media

A legislative proposal: Congress should set aside, or direct telephone companies to set aside, certain phone numbers that can be used in films and on television without fear of liability.

As you have no doubt noticed, when a line of dialog includes a phone number, the character on screen, often with intense earnestness, spits out a phone number with a “555” prefix. For example:

“Damnit! Get President Palmer on the phone! His direct, private cell phone number is 202-555-4248!”

Fearful that if they use a real phone number they will get complaints or even lawsuits, studios have taken to using the 555 numbers because they are reserved by the phone companies and never assigned to customers.1 Thus, they will not be unwittingly subjecting hapless folks to scores of midnight crank calls.

The problem? When you are engrossed in the make-believe world created by the film, hearing the fake “555” phone number brings you instantly back to reality – reminding you that you are watching an actor in a film, not, for instance, a heroic government agent trying to disarm a bomb. And if you are a lawyer, hearing the “555” phone number reminds you of the law, which means you are being reminded of your job while watching TV. It’s not good for anyone.

Therefore, I call on Congress, and, while I’m at it, the United Nations and the telecommunications companies of the world, to set aside a large enough slate of random-sounding numbers that movie-goers will not be subjected to instantly recognizable fakes.

The tough question that immediately confronts us: How do we get a slate of numbers that is safe for entertainment usage without screwing over the real customers currently using them. I have two proposals. The first is a bit silly, I admit.2

==More after the jump ...

My first plan would be to provide immunity for certain seven-digit phone numbers where an administrative rule-making body declares such phone numbers to have already been so tarnished through their use in media, that customers have little or no expectation of privacy with regard to them. The most obvious candidate? Why, of course: 867-5309. Those of you who remember the 80s (or have at least seen them on cable TV) will recall that that is Jenny’s number, from Tommy Tutone’s 1982 hit song, “867-5309/Jenny.”3

In fact, I’d say there is a good argument that any producer including 867-5309 in a movie or television show should be availed of an estoppel- or laches-type defense. And, for an analogy to property law, when new phone customers get 867-5309, it’s a lot like coming to the nuisance. Of course, the problem with clearing 867-5309 for producers is that the number is so engrained in pop-culture consciousness, using it in a movie is likely more jarring than using a 555 number.4

My second plan is a three-step approach: (1) Use computerized algorithms to comb seven-digit phone numbers to find those that are used by the fewest businesses and that are used in the fewest area codes. Put these phone numbers on a “Level I” list, then freeze the list, prohibiting phone companies from assigning these numbers to new customers. (2) Provide immunity for producers who use Level I phone numbers, so long as they use such numbers only in combination with an area code that does not correspond to a real telephone number. (3) Allow the Level I list to undergo attrition; that is, allow the seven-digit numbers to become progressively cleaner and cleaner as users in different area codes naturally give up those numbers as they move or otherwise discontinue phone service. When a seven-digit number is no longer used in any area code, or when it reaches a certain threshold of disuse, place that number on a “Level II” list. Provide immunity to producers who use seven-digit numbers, sans area code, on the Level II list.5

If you agree with my proposals, comment below. If you disagree, please call 867-5309.


FN1: I don’t know if customers with phone numbers featured in films have sued producers, much less been successful in a lawsuit. But it is clear that the fear of such lawsuits, or at least complaints and associated ill will, have held studio standards-and-practices folks to the practice of using the 555 numbers.

FN2: This whole post is a bit silly, since, as you may have noticed, it uses footnotes.

FN3: Snopes.com reviews the real-life ramifications of 867-5309 here.

FN4: But here’s an example of an intermediate case: 362-4350. That’s the number to call for the hit-woman personified by Joan Jett in her re-make of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” I’d have to say, though, I doubt 362-4350 has been exploited heavily enough for number holders to be fairly divested.

FN5: This proposal might fairly be called a “seven-point plan,” but I think that’s too many points. Better to keep it to three. Three-point plans are always better. And when you get down to three, for some reason I don’t entirely understand, it is plausible to call it a “three-step plan,” making it sound even easier. (I think part of the problem with saying “seven-step plan” is that if you have too many steps, then you are getting into the realm of dieting and addiction recovery, and that’s not where I’m going with this.)

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on March 4, 2008 at 10:10 AM in Film, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Music, Torts | Permalink


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My sister e-mailed me with this:

>I was watching "The Brave One" with Jodie Foster and
>they used a telephone number that wasn't 555. It was
>212-165-9990. Thought you might find that interesting ...

Hmmm. I do. That's an interesting way to deal with the problem. Since phone numbers don't begin with a "1," that should be as safe as "555." Of course, the "1" renders the number a bit fake-sounding, but I think it's less jarring than "555."

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Mar 12, 2008 3:08:55 PM

For what it's worth, Howard, the letters were often spoken aloud. My grandmother's number, for example, was FR4-1583, and we said it just that way.

Posted by: Jon | Mar 6, 2008 11:38:42 AM

Remember, too, that it was not spoken aloud "Kay El" 5-7654 -- it was "KLondike" 5-7654. Which, you have to admit, is somewhat catchy. Or recall (from way back) the song "PEnnsylvania 6-5000."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 5, 2008 8:50:35 PM

Well, my mind is blown, Jon. (They were still terrible books though.)

Posted by: Katie | Mar 4, 2008 5:34:38 PM

Katie, Katie, you're young. Back in the 60s, we gave numbers that way all the time. (And we used those round dials where you stuck your finger in a hole to rotate the dial . . . )

Posted by: Jon | Mar 4, 2008 4:16:56 PM

The old Babysitter's Club series - also a marvel of '80s entertainment - used to try to avoid the problem of jarring readers by phrasing phone numbers as "KL5-7654" or whatever. (It says something about the quality of the series that phone numbers came up so often that this was an issue). This was actually even more jarring since nobody, in the history of the universe, has given a phone number that way.

Posted by: Katie | Mar 4, 2008 2:17:00 PM

Actually, a lot of entertainment companies have done you one better. They acquire the phone number they will use and put a recording of some sort on it for fans who are diligent/obsessive enough to call the number.

Posted by: anonymous | Mar 4, 2008 10:39:14 AM

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