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Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, sues museum

October 19, 2013 No Comments »
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I haven’t had a chance to read the complaint, but author Harper Lee has recently filed a lawsuit against a non-profit in her hometown that actively trades on both her name and elements of her bestselling novel.

In the coverage of the story, no mention is made of the Right of Publicity, though this legal doctrine is a central component in disputes like this.  Apparently, the museum operates a gift shop–“The Bird’s Nest”–selling various consumer goods relating to her celebrated, and sole, work of authorship.  The Museum’s domain name is

Simply because an operation enjoys non-profit status or serves a certain degree of social utility such as a museum does not mean they have carte blanche to use someone’s Right of Publicity or trademarks.

Trademark, Right of Publicity and Super Bowl XLVII: HarBowl, Harbaugh Bowl, and Kaepernicking

January 24, 2013 No Comments »
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The Super Bowl and the whirlwind of activities surrounding the big game never fail to deliver a season’s worth of intellectual property controversies.

This year, we have trademarks concerning San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick  making headlines.  A few years ago, it was Lindsay Lohan taking on the E*Trade babies:  Before that, a controversy emerged over certain kinds of viewing parties for the game:

It didn’t take long for clever terms such as “Harbowl” and “Harbaugh Bowl” to circulate once the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, coached by John and Jim Harbaugh, respectively, were confirmed for Super Bowl XLVII.  An Indiana resident had the same idea about a year ago when applying for a trademark registration on each of these terms.  The terms took on added significance, of course, when the historic match-up of two brothers as head coaches squaring off against each other was confirmed for this year’s Super Bowl.

The NFL recently contacted the individual and urged him to abandon the marks, which the individual did.  When a trademark is applied for, the applicant must represent to the trademark office that the mark does not reference a living person, or that the applicant has that individual’s consent.  Assuming the Harbaughs did not provide their consent to the individual’s trademark application last year, I believe this important safeguard represents one of the areas that the trademark could have been vulnerable.

The marks in question directly incorporate the last name of the Super Bowl coaches, Jim and John Harbaugh, but notice that they do not reference the NFL, the Ravens, the 49ers, or even the Super Bowl (directly, anyway).  It would appear, then, that the persons or parties with standing to oppose these marks are Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh.  But they probably have a few other matters to tend to at the moment.

Apparently the quarterback of the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, has enough time to tend to a similar matter, as the NFL reports here:

Colin Kaepernick has reportedly applied for a trademark for the word “Kaepernicking,” the instantly-popular reference to his touchdown celebration of flexing his arm and kissing his bicep.  The NFL article on the above link makes the assumption that his trademark is for the gesture, and is rather critical of Kaepernick for seeking protection for a gesture which did not originate with Kaepernick.  A critical but seemingly overlooked detail is that the trademark is for the term alone, which is based on his name.  If Colin Kaepernick intends to use the term on products, as ownership of a trademark requires, then I expect he would have the right to secure this mark.  It could be that the application is a defensive move to counteract infringing products and interlopers looking to cash in on Kaepernick’s rapid rise to stardom.  Super Bowl XLVII will be only his tenth NFL start.

In all of the above examples, there also is a strong Right of Publicity element involved with the terms HarBowl, Harbaugh Bowl and Kaepernicking.  Use of any of these terms without corresponding permission from Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, or Colin Kaepernick would likely face Right of Publicity liability, as each of these Super Bowl XLVII competitors are unequivocally identifiable from the terms.

And we haven’t even seen the 2013 Super Bowl ads yet.

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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