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Ruling in favor of Michael Jordan gets it right

February 20, 2014 19 Comments »
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Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois ruled in favor of Michael Jordan, holding that a grocery store’s “congratulatory ad” is not protected speech.  The Jewel Food Stores advertisement in question ran in Sports Illustrated in 2009, congratulating Michael Jordan on his induction to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.

While the court’s ruling gets it right, the tone of ESPN’s coverage in the link below indicates that this ruling might not be fully understood.  The coverage in the article is thorough enough to allow the reader to reach his or her own conclusions, I think.  And for the avoidance of doubt, here is a link to the decision itself:

When the lower court ruled against Jordan, I believed the wrong decision had been reached and I was confident Jordan’s appeal would prevail.

In general, advertising falls in the realm of commercial speech.  And there is quite an incentive for businesses to cozy up to a celebrity like Michael Jordan via advertising of this kind.  The starting fee for an authorized association with Michael Jordan, as reported in the link below and in the above ruling, is $5 million.

I might feel differently if the grocery store had insisted on remaining completely anonymous:  no use of the grocery store’s name, logo, motto, website, address or any other designations.  If that was the nature of the advertisement, I might give more credence to the “congratulatory” argument.  But those kinds of advertisements don’t come around very often.

Internet scam ads could trigger Right of Publicity claims

January 10, 2014 No Comments »
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An article in the January/February 2014 issue of The Atlantic entitled Jesse Willms, the Dark Lord of the Internet examines how one person has made a fortune from promoting products with deceptive or even fraudulent online advertisements.  The article reports that the ads have included use of either the names or images of famous people.

The article talks about Oprah Winfrey and others who have filed lawsuits based on the fraudulent aspects of the ads, but I wonder if those lawsuits included Right of Publicity claims as well?  Without examining the mechanics (jurisdiction, among other things), perhaps a meaningful damages award for a Right of Publicity infringement would serve as a bit of a deterrent?

Here’s a link to the online version of the article in The Atlantic:


Presidential bids, Donald Trump, and the Right of Publicity for public figures

May 26, 2011 No Comments »
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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  ( 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 to Trump steaks (  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:


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:


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:

Obama Got Osama:

First Lady Michelle Obama and PETA ads:

President Barack Obama bobbleheads:  Intentionally unflattering?

The First Daughters:  Sasha and Malia Ty beanie baby dolls:

President Obama merchandise continues:

President Obama infringements?


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