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.
Thanks to a stipulated settlement read into the record on February 3, 2012 in a lawsuit brought by the Marlon Brando Estate against Ashley Furniture, we have a rare example of a publicly-disclosed settlement amount. Brando’s Estate is settling its claims against Ashley Furniture for $356,000, including an allocation for attorney’s fees. The dispute was over a furniture line designated as “Brando.”
There is a similar lawsuit still in process involving Humphrey Bogart and a “Bogart” couch offered by Ashley Furniture. In that case, Ashley Furniture reportedly argued that it “was not diluting a generic name” and sought a declaration that the Right of Publicity can’t be applied to the name of a couch.
I would agree with Ashley Furniture that they aren’t diluting a generic name, because neither Brando nor Bogart can be said to be generic names. Even without use of their first names, each name is clearly identifiable as Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart. When taken in context, with a Brando product next to a Bogart product, there really can be no reasonable argument that those names aren’t identifying Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.
The idea that the Right of Publicity should somehow not apply to the name of a couch would be laughable if it wasn’t the kind of argument that seems to be increasingly employed by those caught infringing.
Here is a link to Eriq Gardner’s write-up in The Hollywood Reporter: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/marlon-brando-ashley-furniture-lawsuit-couch-humphry-bogart-287389
Muhammad Ali has filed a lawsuit against Kobo, Inc. for use of his famous slogan “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in a recent Kobo ad campaign.
Kobo is based in Toronto Canada, and the advertisement ran in the New York Times promoting Kobo’s electronic reading device. The advertisement apparently did not use Ali’s image or any other elements of his persona. The famous slogan, however, is a registered trademark. The suit was filed in New York.
Missing from the reporting on this topic (and I have not yet seen the complaint itself) is the fact that use of this slogan also implicates Ali’s Right of Publicity. To the extent that Ali is singularly and unequivocally identifiable by this phrase, a registered trademark likely would not be needed to support a claim based on Ali’s Right of Publicity. Doesn’t hurt to have the registered trademark as well, though. The slogan has been licensed to third parties, as is reportedly alleged in the complaint.
Here’s a link to the story: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-07-14/muhammad-ali-company-sues-to-stop-kobo-use-of-butterfly-slogan.html