Super Bowl LIII will commence later today, and with it, some of the most anticipated advertising of the year as well. Most don’t think of it this way, but those advertisements often feature the Right of Publicity by way of the people depicted in the ads. My licensing company has an advertisement that will run during this Super Bowl as well–a campaign that has been running for a while featuring Major Taylor. Enjoy the game, and enjoy the advertisements!
Article in the New York Times examining the issues presented by depicting athletes in video games, and the possibility that the tattoo artist retains an interest in their work (original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression). Thus, a human, or skin, is now a tangible medium of expression.
Seems like a simple agreement at the point of origin would fix most of these issues going forward.
Link to the New York Times article: NYT article on who owns what athlete tattoos and video games
Actress Tara Reid apparently has filed a lawsuit seeking $100 million relating to merchandising of the Sharknado film franchise. Reportedly at issue are product categories such as branded beer and slot machines with her likeness on them, which according to her contract require her separate approval. From a distance, this looks like a contract dispute more than a Right of Publicity case, though certainly the Right of Publicity is implicated by the issues at hand. If her likeness is on the product, one hopes that the transformative test would not be twisted and stretched to attempt an argument that the image on the product is meant to be the character from the film, not the actress herself, that her likeness is transformed. But it wouldn’t be the first time a carefully tailored test gets twisted down the line.
Here is Forbes coverage of the lawsuit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2018/12/07/tara-reid-sues-sharknado-producers-for-100m/#26b5b9672c46
Beyonce suit against Feyonce knockoffs illustrates need for Right of Publicity distinct from trademark
A Judge recently denied Beyoncé’s request for injunctive relief against a Texas company selling a range of products using “Feyonce.”
Apparently, the Feyonce pun is based on the proximity to the word fiancé. The Judge’s ruling, in summary, is that there was not a sufficient showing of potential confusion among customers that Feyonce was infringing Beyoncé’s trademark rights.
Thus, the need for Right of Publicity as a distinct form of intellectual property, that trademark does not adequately address, is illustrated yet again.
Here’s a link to more information on the ruling and the case: Beyonce Feyonce Lawsuit
One has to marvel at the arguments being attempted in opposition to New York’s Assembly Bill A.8155B. Here is a link to the bill: New York Assembly Bill A.8155B
In coverage of the bill (in the Hollywood Reporter coverage, link below), the MPAA says one of the fatal problems with the bill is that it does not have limitations for First Amendment purposes. Let’s shine the white-hot light of truth on such misinformation with a quick look at S.51 of the bill:
§ 51. Action for injunction and for damages. ... 50 2. Right of publicity exceptions. For purposes of the right of public- 51 ity, consent for use of another individual's persona shall not be 52 required, except as otherwise provided in subdivisions three and four of 53 this section, when used in connection with the following: 54 (a) news, public affairs or sports broadcast, including the promotion 55 of and advertising for a public affairs or sports broadcast, an account 56 of public interest or a political campaign;
A. 8155--B 5 1 (b) in: 2 (i) a play, book, magazine, newspaper, musical composition, visual 3 work, work of art, audiovisual work, radio or television program if it 4 is fictional or nonfictional entertainment, or a dramatic, literary or 5 musical work; 6 (ii) a work of political, public interest or newsworthy value includ- 7 ing a comment, criticism, parody, satire or a transformative creation of 8 a work of authorship; or 9 (iii) an advertisement or commercial announcement for any of the works 10 described in paragraph (a) of this subdivision or this paragraph; or 11 (c) fundraising purposes by not-for-profit radio and television 12 stations licensed by the federal communications commission of the United 13 States, or by not-for-profit advocacy organizations if the use is for 14 commentary or criticism; 15 (d) use of the right of publicity of a deceased individual where the 16 licensee or successor in interest has failed to register and post a 17 claim of right under section fifty-h of this article, with the exception 18 of the safe harbor period listed in subdivision seven of section fifty-h 19 of this article, until such time as a claim of right has been registered 20 and posted as required under such section.
Accuracy appears to be the first casualty in the fight against Right of Publicity recognition. Claiming the First Amendment will be jeopardized and creative works stifled if the legislation is passed is such a popular refrain designed to make every legislator afraid to go against something as fundamental as the First Amendment, that it will be repeated even when the statute specifically contains exactly what it is alleged to lack.
Another observation is the attempt to characterize New York’s bill as something so revolutionary, something so dangerous, that the bill simply must be shelved. New York’s legislature has been in almost a permanent state of considering this legislation. Many other states have Right of Publicity recognition firmly in place, and so far, I’m happy to report the First Amendment, creative works, commerce, and freedom in general have not withered in those jurisdictions. We might have heard about it if these popular, dire predictions actually ever occurred.
Another quick observation relates to the provisions in the bill addressing deep fake uses and digital recreation of a person. On this point, I might just sit back and listen as the lobbyists attempt to argue against a baseline provision addressing the extreme abuses possible by way of deep fake uses and digital recreation.
Lastly, in the Hollywood Reporter’s coverage, it is suggested that A.8155B isn’t really needed because the Lanham Act, false endorsement and privacy rights already provide adequate recourse. They don’t. That statement would only hold true for the small number of people so famous that they can actually support a trademark claim. Suggesting that the Lanham Act and privacy rights are a sufficient substitute for the Right of Publicity is simply inaccurate, and this point ought to be beyond debate. The article says it is not attempting to take offer competing interpretations and that both sides are probably guilty of overreaching, but then comments only on supporters of the bill, with no commentary or insight on how the studios and opponents to the bill may also be overreaching. Here is the link: Hollywood Reporter coverage on New York’s Assembly Bill A.8155B
In the ugliness of lobbying, it is apparent that being right, or even knowing what the legislation actually says, is not really an important detail.
At a recent Napa Valley ABA panel, the argument reportedly was made that a wave of lawsuits filed against media companies is making it harder for producers to make documentaries, docudramas and sports features. I’m reminded of the coverage after Comedy III or the Tiger Woods case against Jireh, when claims were made that “artists can’t create art anymore.” Gotta love hyperbole.
Last time I checked, a few lawsuits doesn’t constitute a wave. And it sure doesn’t seem like the documentary, docudrama and sports feature categories are struggling. I’d wager that more such words are being created now than ever before.
The pending suit by Mohammad Ali’s rights owners against Fox for a Super Bowl spot, and a separate claim by Olivia de Havilland are probably the main examples of this “trend” or “wave.” Why don’t we speak of the trend or wave of media giants and advertisers trying to get for free rights that should be licensed? Sure, documentaries, docudramas, and whatever “sports features” are may present specific cases, but it isn’t too radical of an idea to suggest that each situation may present unique facts or characteristics that must be considered. Bad lawsuits will be filed, in all areas of the law. Abuses will happen by billion-dollar corporations or industries, of all manner of intellectual property rights. It happens, and we have laws and a system for addressing them.
Let’s try not to get carried away. My experience is those making the most dire predictions of a dystopian world where the right of publicity has consume the First Amendment rights are usually those aligned with the deep pockets that benefit most from such misinformation, or from those with precious little experience working with and representing rights owners.
Italian Steve Jobs fashion company makes obvious the necessity for meaningful Right of Publicity provisions
For those who argue against the need for meaningful Right of Publicity legislation, like many I have observed in the latest New York legislative effort, I offer the following situation as a compelling example that not only demonstrates the necessity of Right of Publicity recognition, but also the inadequacy of trademark law as a sufficient substitute.
An Italian company led by two brothers started a fashion company called Steve Jobs. There is no mistaken identity or alternate Steve Jobs intended by the fashion company; they openly confirm that their company is named after the late Apple-innovator Steve Jobs. Want proof? Their logo is the letter “J” with a bite taken out of it, just like Apple’s iconic trademark.
While many will already see the obvious, note that an EU trademark proceeding determined that the fashion company’s logo is (somehow) not a J with a bite out of it because (apparently) a J cannot be bitten as an apple can.
Perhaps under the guise of feigning nobility or respectfulness, the company states that they won’t make shoddy products because they “respect the name of Steve Jobs.” Of course, that respect doesn’t preclude them from including Steve Jobs’ quotes in their promotional efforts.
This, loyal readers, scholars or members of the media, is why we need a Right of Publicity. This situation exposes the inadequacy of arguing that trademark law provides sufficient protection for publicity-rights interests. It also demonstrates the compelling necessity for meaningful Right of Publicity legislation as a distinct member within the intellectual property family.
Here is a link to an article with more details on the matter:
Muhammad Ali’s representatives have filed a $30 million lawsuit on behalf of Muhammad Ali Enterprises (MAE) against Fox Broadcasting Company. The suit centers around a three minute promotional ad for Super Bowl LI which ran before the Super Bowl in 2017. The spot includes various other personalities, past and present, in addition to Ali who is the focal point.
Here is a link to the complaint: