An appeal brought by Lindsay Lohan against Take-Two Entertainment and Rockstar Games in relation to the Lacey Jonas character in Grand Theft Auto V has inspired an amicus brief, filed last month, in support of the video game companies. I am not commenting on the merits of Lohan’s claim here. I also am not responding to the brief itself, but am just notating a few observations that relate to the New York discussion overall.
The Lohan case is pending in New York. The amicus brief references New York’s right of privacy statute (New York sections 50 & 51) and indicates that New York’s statute helped the court “dodge a bullet” through its narrow right of privacy provisions.
New York’s legislation, as it shapes New York’s position on the right of publicity and its narrow provisions concerning the right of privacy, is hardly a model for right or privacy or right of publicity legislation (not that anyone has called it a model). New York’s Sections 50 and 51 puts New York at odds with almost every state in the U.S. It allows no room for the critical policy reasons behind right of publicity recognition, as distinct from privacy rights. New York’s right of publicity deficiencies, stemming from the 115 year old legislation (though it has been amended a few times) are, in fact, the source of a lot of problems New York is experiencing.
Addressing New York’s 1903 statute, passed in the aftermath of Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N.Y. 538 (1902), Professor J. Thomas McCarthy in The Rights of Privacy and Publicity, s.6:74 says:
“New York …is part of a tiny and dwindling minority of courts which still rejects any common law rights of privacy. The court refuses to change its 1902 Roberson decision, viewing the common law as a rigid and fixed institution…When the federal courts in New York invited the New York Court of Appeals to join the national trend and recognize some form of common law privacy rights, the invitation was ignored.”
It was New York that gave life to the common law right of publicity in the 1953 case of Haelan V. Topps, 202 F.2d 866, which in turn led to recognition in other states. McCarthy says “But the right of publicity faced a hostile reception in the state courts in the state of its creation. Honored abroad, it was viewed with suspicion in New York.” Clearly, it still is.
In an eye-brow raising abandonment of decades of precedent, the New York Court of Appeals in 1984 abandoned numerous rulings recognizing a common law right of publicity, holding that there is no common law right of publicity in New York and forcing analysis to pass through a statute that was only 36 months out of the 19th Century. Stephano v. News Group Publications, Inc., 64 N.Y.2d 174 (1984). McCarthy says about Stephano: “Erroneously treating the right of publicity as merely a tag-along form of the right of privacy, the court …rejected without serious discussion the concept of a New York common law right of publicity.” A similar ruling in 1993 deepened New York’s slide into the abyss in Howell v. New York Post Co., Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 1145. McCarthy says of the 1993 ruling: “Thus, the highest New York court has abided by its position that all privacy and publicity rights must fit in the 1903 statute. But this makes for a poor fit. The modern right of publicity simply does not fit comfortably in a century-old statute designed for another time and another kind problem.”
The Lohan amicus brief addresses the transformative use test and the predominant purpose test. In other settings, the criticism of these tests sometimes seems to almost include the tacit suggestion that judges are incapable of using discernment and applying the law to challenging facts. To my ears, that sounds like the essence of their calling. Sure, outlier cases exist, and certain fact patterns will present challenging scenarios in which application of one of these tests may seem a bit forced, but every legal test comes with such dynamics. The transformative use test has proven to be an adaptive, functional analysis tool in most instances.
Another recurring theme as it pertains to video game litigation as well as draft legislation is that the discussion of whether video games should receive some degree of exempted status is being presented as a fait accompli. It is as though the discussion point has morphed into an assumption that video games should be treated as categorically protected. A fair amount has been written on this site about video games and the transformative use test (Discussion Brown Keller EA rulings). In most instances, video games go to extraordinary lengths, using cutting edge technology, to ensure nothing about the personality is transformed. Instead, the objective is to represent that person as thoroughly and realistically as possible. Maybe there are instances in which a video game character should not trigger liability, but to move the entire industry into exempted status is more dangerous and unwarranted than dealing with specific cases as they come up. Perhaps there is a reason some of the litigation against video game companies has been successful in the court system?
New York has tried many times to amend its position on the right of publicity but, to date, nothing has changed. It is worth noting that even if the recent legislation under consideration was enacted, New York’s statute would still be among the weakest right of publicity statute in the country. Why isn’t this seen as a success for the opposition? New York may be the center of the universe in many respects, but it certainly is not when it comes to the right of publicity. And while those opposed to New York’s draft legislation foretell of a tidal wave of litigation and an assault on the First Amendment if passed–basically the first two entries in the anti-right of publicity playbook that has been attempted in every jurisdiction since I’ve been paying attention, though it is effective at scaring legislators–they are ignoring the data from many other jurisdictions that disproves such predictions.
I have no objection to debate, analysis and differences of opinion regarding the right of publicity. If the right of publicity is to grow and evolve, the doctrine will survive scrutiny and benefit from fair-minded, level-headed discussion. That said, a conference I recently attended was marked by positions clearly representing the minority viewpoint being presented as the presumptively correct views, as though it was the majority view and supported by case law, statutory authority and scholarship. Much of the conversation was presented in a manner that what New York was considering is unprecedented and radical, which is simply not true and certainly not fair-minded or level-headed.
I recall an argument from a few years ago in which a lobbying organization on behalf of the First Amendment claimed that if that state passed the proposed legislation, libraries would not be able to post a notice that, for example, J.K. Rowling’s new book would be available on a certain date without facing potential litigation from the author. Give me a break.
I’m not sure where the Lohan claim will end up. She probably isn’t the most sympathetic claimant, and I haven’t analyzed the use of the Lacey Jonas character in the game. If she is unequivocally identifiable from the use, especially if the use in context is clearly based on the game player’s awareness of Lohan, then I’d start the conversation assuming she would have the basis of a claim.
Here is a Lexology link with more details on the Lohan amicus brief: amicus brief Lohan
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:
The rise in craft brewing labels has been accompanied by a custom in the industry to develop colorful names and labels. While this dynamic creates the likelihood of infringements occurring, a recent lawsuit filed by the estate of Thelonius Monk involves additional considerations and backstory.
The North Coast Brewing Company apparently has produced its Brother Thelonious ale for about ten years. Initially, permission was given verbally by the Monk estate. Some degree of profits were to be given to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit music education program in D.C. The dispute seems to involve activities beyond the anticipated use that was authorized verbally.
That said, it seems likely that the craft brewing industry has the potential to yield similar disputes involving iconic personalities. For practitioners working with craft breweries, or the breweries themselves, this lawsuit could be instructive.
Here is a link to more details and an image of the Brother Thelonius label:
Two informative articles have issued in the last week, on the heels of the 2017 Licensing Show. Both are informative and include input from industry leaders.
and Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/592fa717e4b00afe556b0b27
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Maloney v. T3 Media, Inc., Case No. 15-55630 (9th Cir. April 5, 2017), recently issued the latest installment in the age-old supposed showdown between Copyright and the Right of Publicity and the issue of preemption. The Court states in the holding that preemption can occur “when a likeness has been captured in a copyrighted artistic visual work and the work itself is being distributed for personal use.”
To be clear, copyright does not automatically preempt the Right of Publicity. The two doctrines protect distinct interests and, have separate policy purposes. Preemption generally requires a very specific fact pattern. The assumption seems to be that if the Right of Publicity co-exists in tandem with a copyright interest, preemption must be applicable. That is not the case, and there are countless examples of uses, situations and fact patterns where various rights or interests apply simultaneously without one preempting the other. I read Maloney as a fairly confined, and specific ruling on a distinct fact pattern.
Here is a link to an article with more elaboration on the specifics of the case:
If the report on this link is accurate, that a Florida hair clinic used Brian Urlacher without permission to promote their services, this sounds like a clean-cut case of Right of Publicity infringement. Urlacher reportedly had an endorsement deal with a Florida clinic whose services Urlacher did in fact use, which will likely enhance his position in the damages portion of the lawsuit. Here’s a link with a bit more information: Brian Urlacher sues Florida hair clinic
Interesting Bloomberg article dated 2/1/17 covering the dispute over the valuation of Michael Jackson’s estate. “The IRS claims Jackson’s should have been valued at $434 million. The estate claims that it was worth a mere $2,105.” Sounds like a case for a Right of Publicity valuation expert. Here’s a link to the Bloomberg article: Bloomberg: Michael Jackson estate valuation
Forbes has just released the annual “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” for 2016. The most notable aspects of this year’s list are the new entries of recently departed personalities, and the amount of the number one earner. Here is a link to Forbes’ coverage: http://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2016/10/12/the-highest-paid-dead-celebrities-of-2016/#5a1f53dd8d2e
Arnold Palmer (#3), Prince (#5) and David Bowie (#11) are the unfortunate new members on the list due to their recent respective deaths in 2016. In Palmer’s case, he had already created a vast business empire so the revenue sources that put him on this particular list were already in place. For Prince, who perhaps is the most surprising entrant on this list due to the especially shocking news of his death, the earnings are due to the surge in music sales that often follow the death of a notable artist. The same could be said of Bowie, but Bowie’s numbers also benefited from the release of a new album that closely coincided with his passing.
The other notable surprise in this year’s list is the amount assigned to the number one entrant, Michael Jackson, at $825 Million. Compare that figure to the number two spot, Charles Schulz, at $48 Million. It is worth noting that Jackson, since his death, has almost always taken the top spot, and while never quite at the $825 Million mark, the drop off from first place to second has often been very steep.
ESPN just published an interesting article that surveys a range of athletes seeking trademark registrations on catch phrases or other aspects of identity. It’s a valuable brand-building step and it has it’s place as a compliment to the Right of Publicity. What the article does not touch on, the elephant in the room, is the question of actual use. Sure, Robert Griffin can apply for “unbelievably believable” but show me the use in commerce. Some athletes obviously will satisfy the use component, but my guess is that the majority of these applications will fall into abandonment, or even fail to to reach registration.
That Minnesota should consider enacting publicity rights legislation is something I stated here shortly after Prince’s untimely passing: http://rightofpublicity.com/prince-knew-the-value-of-his-intellectual-property-42216 Minnesota has responded with draft right of publicity legislation, SF 3609, posted on May 11, 2016: https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/text.php?number=SF3609&version=0&session=ls89&session_year=2016&session_number=0
Predictably, critics of the legislation are taking issue with the bill on First Amendment grounds: http://www.law360.com/ip/articles/794846?nl_pk=bb8aeb3e-4ab9-4ba4-a0af-b895a107fd8a&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ip
While the legislation likely would benefit from expanding the list of fair use exemptions, such as for books, overall the legislation is in good shape and appears well-balanced in its reach and application.
As we have seen from the Michael Jackson estate and questions concerning the valuation of his right of publicity, I expect Prince’s estate will go through a similar review by the IRS. It should be noted that Minnesota’s potential adoption of the “Prince law” is not dispositive on whether or not Prince’s estate possess a right of publicity. It should be assumed that it already does. How it should be treated for taxation purposes is another question altogether.
Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the coming challenge of valuing the “image rights” of Prince’s estate. Here is a link: Valuing Prince’s Image Rights
There are some interesting points, as well as some common mistakes, threaded into this article which illuminate the complexity of valuing Prince’s image rights. I must refrain from elaborating, as I would be one of a small handful of qualified candidates to perform such valuation. There aren’t many candidates who are qualified for the task.
As the article notes, the valuation could become a “battle of the experts” but there certainly is a way to value Prince’s image rights in a supportable way. Much relies on a truly qualified expert bringing the appropriate perspective to the matter. It won’t come from books or formulas. The valuation must be done by someone who is very well-informed about Prince’s career, beliefs and principles. (As it turns out, that criteria may make me the most qualified potential expert on the matter.)
Reference in the Wall Street Journal article to the Michael Jackson estate’s representatives claiming a valuation of around $2,000 and the IRS countering with $434 Million shows the critical and sensitive nature of the upcoming Prince valuation.
If only Prince was simply still alive. But fellow artists and musicians, take note: if your attorney isn’t talking to you about the right of publicity, find one who is.
This should lay to rest that old yarn that “it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Late last week, Michael Jordan won an $8.9 Million damages award against the grocery store that used his Right of Publicity without permission in print ads that ran in Sports Illustrated.
At trial, jurors heard the familiar infringer’s refrain that Dominick’s achieved no benefit from the ads, and based on expert valuation testimony, the most it should pay for the ad was around $126,000. Of course, this overlooks the fact that Michael Jordan apparently does not do deals for $126,000 and rather, the starting fee for a license to use Jordan’s Right of Publicity is generally in the $10 Million range.
So at $8.9 Million, Dominick’s may have gotten a 10.1 % discount.
Here’s a Right of Publicity fact pattern to kick around: can a company make Pope Francis dolls without a license from the Pope?
I don’t know if the recently announced Pope Francis dolls from Bleacher Creatures are licensed or not, so I want to be clear on that point and allow for the possibility that they are. Bleacher Creatures primarily makes 10″ dolls of famous athletes, and they wouldn’t be doing that without permission.
In the link below, I find it interesting that the company is said to be “crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s” but the extent of that due diligence appears to be simply that they “reached out to the Vatican” and “would love to officially partner with them.” Taken at face value, that strongly indicates that they do not have any form of permission to make the dolls.
Of course, “reaching out” coupled with a statement of desire to “officially partner” is not all that is needed to proceed with commercial products of a famous person. Perhaps the play here is that the Pope isn’t likely to file a claim over it, but last time I checked, “likelihood of getting away with it” was not the legal standard for Right of Publicity infringement.
The Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill urged by Bill Cosby to statutorily recognize a post-mortem Right of Publicity in Massachusetts. The bill heads next to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. I’m including a link (below) to NPR’s coverage of this very positive legislative development.
As is often the case when the media covers the Right of Publicity, the coverage does not give the most balanced picture of the functioning of these rights and the policy purposes behind them. That’s probably the fault of no one or nothing other than time limitations and the need to get in and out of a complex topic in short segments. But, for example, it’s really not that difficult to determine who owns the Right of Publicity of a personality after a person dies, as the host declares. The coverage also does not point out all the limitations and allowances for First Amendment purposes that accompany most Right of Publicity statutes. And lastly, I strongly caution against acting on host Anthony Brooks’ conclusion that “if a business wants to trade on the image of Marilyn Monroe, they can.” (Just after the 2:00 mark in the NRP clip.)
Professor Ray Madoff of Boston College Law School does a good job discussing some of the high points of the Right of Publicity. To the credit of the producer of this segment on NPR/Radio Boston, I (the administrator of http://www.RightofPublicity.com) was consulted to verify certain information about Right of Publicity statutes throughout the country (the part in the interview when the host Sacha Pfeiffer says “we looked this up”).
Here’s a link to the radio segment: http://radioboston.wbur.org/2014/06/13/dead-right-publicity
The lawsuit brought by former Nebraska and Arizona State quarterback, Sam Keller against video game giant Electronic Arts (EA) and the NCAA has been settled. The reported settlement amount is $20 Million.
A statement by the CLO of the NCAA expressed that the timing of the settlement is based on the fact that the video games are no longer in production, as well as Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) and EA having settled out of the case as well.
The administrator of this site, http://www.RightofPublicity.com joined SAG and other notable rights holders (via Luminary Group) in filing an amicus brief in support of Keller.
It is not entirely clear yet how the settlement funds will be distributed amongst certain affected college athletes, but more information can be found on this link:
Here is a link to more details: http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=38917404-afa9-4b61-ae81-a3ebc21ff996&utm_source=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed&utm_medium=HTML+email+-+Body+-+Federal+section&utm_campaign=Lexology+subscriber+daily+feed&utm_content=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed+2014-06-02&utm_term=
BVR is a leading publisher on valuations, and I recently had an extensive discussion with BVR concerning valuations and the Right of Publicity. The resulting article itself is subscription-based, but the title of the article is New cases spotlight the value of ‘right of publicity,’ published February 19, 2014, Issue #137-3. Also see http://www.BVResources.com
Earlier this week, the NCAA’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the case of Keller v. Electronic Arts Inc., 724 F.3d 1268 (9th Cir. 2013) was denied. The author of http://www.RightofPublicity.com joined SAG in filing an amicus brief in that case at the lower court level, and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and analysis were correct under the circumstances.
Electronic Arts, for its part, had already settled the case. The NCAA petitioned the Supreme Court to adopt the Rogers Test to determine use of the Right of Publicity of student athletes in video games and to overturn the determination that the use of the athletes in the video game was not protected by the First Amendment.
The Rogers Test was devised as an analysis for titles and would have been entirely wrong for the Keller case. It is surprising the Rogers test was even suggested, except perhaps it was believed that if adopted the result would be something the NCAA preferred.
The Ninth Circuit’s application of the Transformative Use test was the correct test for the use and issues in question. We don’t need the U.S. Supreme Court to assist in determining that a test devised for titles should not be used in a case like Keller.