When it comes to the Super Bowl, even the advertisements are watched with great anticipation and Super Bowl LI was no exception. When your company is involved in licensing some of the advertisements in question, as Luminary Group was in the “Super Bowl Babies” spot, it tends to make one watch even more closely. As a Right of Publicity specialist, I was especially intrigued by not one but two Super Bowl LI advertisements with strong Right of Publicity overtones.
The first spot with Right of Publicity implications was the talking yearbook Honda advertisement featuring Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Robert Redford, Amy Adams, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jimmy Kimmel, Missy Elliott, Viola Davis, and Stan Lee. By showing an entire page of the yearbook photos of the not-yet-famous celebrities next to their classmates, approximately 60 other people appearing next to the talking yearbook images were identifiable. I have no inside information about the making of the advertisement, so I will assume the spot was carefully vetted. Maybe those other people were tracked down and permission was secured. Maybe they used stock photography or models with hypothetical names and simply paid a minimal fee to recreate the yearbook pages instead of using the authentic pages. In the Steve Carell segment, the person next to Carell even gets a speaking spot to which Carrell responds “that was a rhetorical question, Darryl!” If nothing else, the Honda talking yearbook ad presents an interesting scenario for Right of Publicity analysis.
Here’s a link to the Honda advertisement: Honda talking yearbook ad featuring Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Robert Redford, Magic Johnson, Missy Elliott, Viola Davis, Jimmy Kimmel, Stan Lee and Amy Adams
The second spot with Right of Publicity implications was the John Malkovich domain name advertisement for Squarespace. In the advertisement, Malkovich is talking on his smartphone to a person who owns the domain name JohnMalkovich.com. Malkovich says he needs the domain name because he is starting a men’s fashion line, but the person Malkovich is talking to is also named “John Malkovich.” This prompts John Malkovich to say “yeah, you think when people contact JohnMalkovich.com they are actually looking for you? Or maybe, maybe they’re looking for ME!” Domain name analysis pertaining to famous individuals often depends on the nature of the use being made of the domain name. If a person shares a name with a famous person of the same moniker, but is simply using that domain name in relation to the non-famous owner’s career, interests or life, for example, there may not be much the famous John Malkovich can do about it. On the other hand, as so often is the case, if the content on the domain name is being used in a way that threads in the famous John Malkovich, then there could be an actionable domain name dispute. The message of the John Malkovich ad is to register the domain name you want before someone else does. That’s good advice, though it isn’t always the final word in instances where cybersquatting is taking place.
Here’s a link to the Squarespace advertisement: Squarespace JohnMalkovich domain name ad
With Donald Trump recently announcing that he would not run for President in 2012, I thought about a popular topic concerning the right of publicity of public figures and politicians. This topic (as well as this website) was recently discussed on a t-shirt website forum (http://www.t-shirtforums.com/general-t-shirt-selling-discussion/t153365.html#post913652) so I thought I’d elaborate somewhat on this topic.
Donald Trump is no stranger to the intellectual property rights surrounding his name, image, persona and identity. He has registered trademarks on various aspects of his identity, and enjoys a vibrant licensing program ranging from Trump’s Signature Collection of clothing (suits, ties, cuff links, eyewear http://www.trump.com/Merchandise/Signature_Collection.asp) to Trump steaks (http://www.trumpsteaks.com/). If Trump were to run for President (which I suppose he already has, to some degree), would he be forfeiting his right of publicity, and therefore his ability to prevent unauthorized, unlicensed products entering the marketplace?
In short, no. But it does get a bit more complicated for public officials to pursue unauthorized merchandise and advertising campaigns, even if they would have a legal right to do so. Through my work on behalf of many public figures, ranging from Princess Diana and Rosa Parks to Jackie Robinson and General Patton, as well as a couple of former U.S. Presidents, I know that a certain amount of such activity has been tolerated. President Obama seems to have responded to such activity more than any other President, perhaps also because he (or his family) has been used more than any other recent President. Here is a news item concerning a casino billboard campaign with a President Obama lookalike: http://southerngaming.com/?p=2562
Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between a person’s right of privacy and the right of publicity. We are all generally familiar with the idea that when a person runs for public office, he or she gives up a certain degree of an expectation of privacy. A corollary to this is the New York Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard for defamation of public figures. This case instructs that because the famous person sought out elected office and has better access and means to the press in order to combat any inaccurate or potentially defamatory information, the standard for committing defamation is necessarily higher than that for private citizens. Here’s a Wikipedia link to the New York Times v. Sullivan case: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Times_Co._v._Sullivan
This “actual malice” standard for elected officials is part of the mechanism for ensuring broad First Amendment privileges, and encouraging differing views, discourse and criticism of our public officials. None of this means that those elected officials have simultaneously consented to becoming product lines or being featured in advertising campaigns for all manner of goods and services. It may be that such products or advertising campaigns have an element of parody, which conceivably could serve as a defense to a right of publicity claim. But most such products or advertising campaigns are simply an effort to sell more products or to promote a company’s goods or services. This, then, is likely nothing more than commercial speech. If the message is simply “buy our stuff” or “shop at our store,” and the inclusion of the public figure is nothing more than a scheme to attract attention, then the right of publicity can and generally will provide recourse for that public official.
In many instances, pursuing a company who engages in what might constitute a right of publicity infringement may become more of a public relations issue than a legal issue. Going after the company may give that company substantially more media attention, and may be portrayed in the press as that public figure trying to chase down infringers in order to make money. It’s a bit of a dilemma for those who find themselves in such a position.
I didn’t realize how much attention this topic has been given on this website until I looked back at prior entries:
First Lady Michelle Obama and PETA ads: http://rightofpublicity.com/peta-launches-new-ad-featuring-michelle-obama-without-first-ladys-permission
President Barack Obama bobbleheads: Intentionally unflattering? http://rightofpublicity.com/bobbleheads-intentionally-unflattering-or-a-symptom-of-the-product-category
The First Daughters: Sasha and Malia Ty beanie baby dolls: http://rightofpublicity.com/sasha-and-malia-dolls-now-its-not-just-the-president-being-infringed
President Obama merchandise continues: http://rightofpublicity.com/president-obama-merchandise-continues
President Obama infringements? http://rightofpublicity.com/president-obama-infringements