The lawsuit filed by Jason Mraz against MillerCoors, filed December 4, 2019 illustrates various important points and takeaways. View the complaint here: Jason Mraz v. MillerCoors complaint
Reportedly, MillerCoors was a sponsor of the 2019 BeachLife Festival in California where Jason Mraz performed. His performance of course included one of his hit songs, I’m Yours. The complaint alleges that MillerCoors posted an advertisement on Instagram for Coors. The advertisement includes a clip of Mraz performing the song, the Coors logo, display of a can of Coors Light, the phrase “presented by Coors Light,” and in the comments, the added statement “Kicking off summer with the World’s Most Refreshing Beer at the BeachLife Festival.”
While a complaint is not the same as a ruling, at least two of the important takeaways from this case are:
- Social media is advertising.
- Sponsors do not acquire broad rights to third-party intellectual property simply by serving as a sponsor.
Both of these issues come up with some regularity in the business of representing a rights owner and the right of publicity. Claiming that a social media post is somehow different from advertising on the basis that it is a fluid, user-controlled environment, or that serving as a sponsor entitles the sponsor to utilize the rights of anyone other than the party they are in contract with as a sponsor, both can lead to serious problems.
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:
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
I am always on watch for legislative developments or new case law concerning the Right of Publicity, but I also find it interesting to consider the path that the Right of Publicity has traveled. The body of case law on the Right of Publicity is some of the most fascinating, and at times colorful, in all of law.
When I was working on Indiana’s revised Right of Publicity statute in 2012, one of the points I emphasized to the legislative committee was that neither the revised legislation I was advancing nor the original Indiana Right of Publicity statute sought to create “new” rights. Instead, the statute aimed to codify common law recognition of rights analogous to the Right of Publicity.
I recently came across an article in Res Gestae, January /February 2013, Vol. 56, No. 6, entitled Intrusion into privacy… by Neal Eggeson, which exemplifies the point I was making to Indiana’s legislature. The article notes the case Continental Optical Co. v. Reed, 86 N.E.2d 306 (1949), in which the court recognized the tort of appropriation of a lens grinder whose image was used without authorization in an advertisement for a lens manufacturer. The Res Gestae article is not about the Right of Publicity, but this does illuminate how one can pick up the trail of a concept, or store away data that may be useful in the future.
Just looking out for the viewers and users of www.RightOfPublicity.com.