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
Observations regarding New Hampshire’s Right of Publicity effort and Governor Lynch’s veto of SB 175
Within hours after delivering a presentation about the Right of Publicity and Celebrity Licensing at the annual Licensing Show in Las Vegas, I was contacted by WIBC 93.1 of Indianapolis seeking comment on the developments concerning the legislative effort to pass a statutory Right of Publicity in New Hampshire. Specifically, I was informed about Governor John Lynch’s surprising veto of SB 175 after it had passed the New Hampshire House and Senate. Here is a link to a brief summary and short audio segment of my full radio interview with WIBC: http://rightofpublicity.com/faber-interview-with-wibc-regarding-new-hampshires-recent-right-of-publicity-effort-62112
The New Hampshire effort has been spearheaded by Matt Salinger, son of acclaimed author J.D. Salinger, who lived in New Hampshire in part because of the value New Hampshire places on individual rights and liberties. Matt Salinger tells of how a photographer ambushed his father in the latter years of his life, manipulated the image, and turned it into a commercial product (t-shirts): “A photographer literally jumped out of the bushes on top of him … then took this picture as my father was recoiling.” “My father looked terrified, looked angry, looked startled and looked a bit haunted. It’s a terrible photograph, but that wasn’t enough for this person who made these T-shirts. He then went in … and made his eyes bright red, and made his face yellow — just made him look more freakish and wild.” Here’s a link to the full story: http://www.wsbtv.com/ap/ap/legislative/salingers-son-stunned-by-veto-of-nh-bill/nPTT2/
Examples like this seem to make an easy case for passing a Right of Publicity statute in New Hampshire. Here is a link to one version of the draft bill: http://mediacoalition.org/mediaimages/NH-SB175-as-amended-by-House_05.22.12.pdf Unfortunately, here’s what Governor Lynch said in vetoing SB 175, from his June 12, 2012 press release: “SB 175 would codify a New Hampshire citizen’s right to control and transfer to beneficiaries the commercial use of his or her identity for 70 years after death. Because I believe that this legislation is overly broad, would potentially have a chilling effect on legitimate journalistic and expressive works that are protected by the New Hampshire and United States constitutions, and would invite rather than diminish litigation over legitimate journalistic and expressive use of a person’s identity, I have decided to veto this bill.” Here’s a link to his full veto message: http://www.governor.nh.gov/media/news/2012/061212-sb175.htm
Governor Lynch missed an opportunity to make New Hampshire one of the growing number of states that provide statutory Right of Publicity recognition for its citizenry. His statement indicates a lack of understanding of what the Right of Publicity seeks to accomplish and how it functions in practice. While I appreciate that his time is limited and the Right of Publicity may seem like an esoteric, unfamiliar concept at first blush, I also discern in his statement a caving-in to the lobbying of the major industries opposing the Right of Publicity.
No matter how motivated, articulate, or justified the family of a deceased personality might be in seeking passage of a Right of Publicity statute, those who need the statute have a difficult time rivaling those who oppose it—in other words, the well-funded, coordinated, professional lobbying influences of those opposed to Right of Publicity legislation throughout the country.
Ironically, many of the Right of Publicity opponents can be quite aggressive in protecting their own intellectual property interests when threatened or infringed. Both Federal copyright and trademark law have been amended many times to protect their interests, and their arguments against the Right of Publicity concerning First Amendment, creative expression and the like could equally have been waged against them when their interests were on the line. One therefore might assume these entities would support increasing Right of Publicity recognition through statutory adoption, which would have the benefit of bringing greater consistency and more certainty in dealing with Right of Publicity matters. Stronger intellectual property recognition should be welcomed, not opposed by these groups.
Alas, it does not play out that way because there are financial considerations in play. As an example, movie studios certainly would like to be able to license clips from their respective movies, for example, to make consumer products and advertisements without having to bother with the Right of Publicity of the actors and actresses featured in those movies. The studios would benefit greatly by having complete control over those transactions, as well as to be able to capture the entire clearance budget for licensing and advertising uses. The Right of Publicity, however, ensures that someone like Humphrey Bogart cannot be made a spokesperson for a high-profile tobacco company advertisement, using still images or a clip of Bogart smoking in a movie, without his heirs having a say in whether or not that advertisement will happen in the first place. Very few people would deny that this situation demonstrates the need for Right of Publicity recognition.
Or what about the recent developments in hologram technology? Tupac was resurrected and made to perform, with stunning realism, at the 2012 Coachella Festival. I understand this performance was conducted with full licensing and permissions in place. But without the Right of Publicity, what is to stop a new movie from being created in which Elvis or Steve McQueen is made to perform, or an adult-entertainment producer from creating new “expressive works” of Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana? In addition to demonstrating the imperative for Right of Publicity protection, I believe this technology may even demonstrate the dangers of sweeping statutory exemptions for entire mediums and categories of works.
Variety interviewed me just days ago on this topic. Here’s a link to the June 22, 2012 Variety story: http://rightofpublicity.com/variety-magazine-interviews-jonathan-faber-of-luminary-group-and-rightofpublicity-com-re-virtual-celebrities
Furthermore, the interests of those opposing the Right of Publicity are not nearly as threatened by Right of Publicity as they would have people believe. On an individual basis, I’m proud to say that I have collaborated with various specific video game companies and movie studios in joint licensing programs concerning their projects, archival works, and the celebrity clients I have worked with over the years. Creative works were not squelched, and commerce was not impeded. For decades, the parties have co-existed in a relatively harmonious manner.
So I attribute most of my concerns to the manner by which lobbying takes place these days, which seems to be premised on a distressing degree of inaccuracy and fear-mongering, than to any particular business or entity. I understand these techniques were out in full force in New Hampshire, with statements akin to “If this statute is passed, book reviews can no longer be written” or similarly disingenuous, unsupportable declarations designed to scare the people responsible for determining if SB 175 will be passed or not.
The inaccuracy of such arguments should expose their specious, biased nature and hurt the credibility of those making them. It did in Indiana, for which I am thankful because we were able to get my bill through with the benefit of some good old-fashioned common sense. Here’s a link to the recent Indiana statute: http://rightofpublicity.com/faber-secures-passage-of-indiana-right-of-publicity-statute
It’s not like New Hampshire would be sailing into uncharted waters with the substance of the proposed Right of Publicity statute. I see nothing unprecedented in the draft statute. The materials circulated in support of SB 175 detail how New Hampshire has recognized a common law tort of “invasion of privacy by appropriation,” as in Remsburg v. Docusearch, Inc., 149 N.H. 148, 157, 816 A.2d 1001 (2003). The substance of SB 175 was to clarify that this common law right is descendible or assignable through a will, trust, or other testamentary instrument or written contract, as so many other state statutes provide.
SB 175 is not seeking to create retroactively something that didn’t previously exist, or to bestow a gift upon the Salinger Family, as I understand was also asserted. The rights already existed at common law, but with the benefit of a statute, potential plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers representing plaintiffs or defendants alike, and the judiciary, could have the benefit of guidance from the New Hampshire legislature as to the extent of recognition afforded in New Hampshire. This is a desirable benefit across the board.
To those concerned about the First Amendment: I’m happy to report that the First Amendment is alive in well in Indiana, California, Texas, Washington, Tennessee and the numerous other states that have already passed Right of Publicity legislation. These states all have Right of Publicity statutes in place, and there has not been “a wave of litigation” or “a suppression of First Amendment liberties” as is so often predicted and promised by Right of Publicity opponents.
Virtually every area of the law is subject to potential abuse, but the law and those who work in the profession navigate these perils and serve to keep things on track. Let’s not forget, the judiciary is very good about safeguarding the First Amendment and in making case-specific determinations when First Amendment concerns might legitimately trump the Right of Publicity. I have monitored these matters for a long time, and there are very few instances where the First Amendment was in any real danger as a result of the Right of Publicity. If a bad lawsuit is filed, there are many procedural and substantive protections in place for dealing with it.
I understand there is a session next week to review the Governor’s vetoes. New Hampshire therefore still has an opportunity to not be left behind, and to pass some form of statutory Right of Publicity recognition.
The reality is, those opposing Right of Publicity legislation have an infinite number of ways to accomplish the objective of a bill, while those trying to pass it have only one route to success. Indeed, it is easier to spoil a masterfully prepared dinner than it is to make it. Advantage: opposition.
Much of what I see happening in New Hampshire mirrors what I experienced leading the effort to protect Indiana’s Right of Publicity statute earlier this year. Most of the arguments in opposition to SB 175, and the efforts to insert unprecedented exemptions for video games, or the antiquated notion of a registry system, came up when I was working on Indiana’s Right of Publicity bill.
The difference is, Governor Mitch Daniels signed Indiana’s Right of Publicity bill into law, which goes into effect in just a few weeks. I’m still rooting for the great State of New Hampshire and its capable leaders to do the right thing and pass legislation that provides a statutory Right of Publicity.
After all, isn’t it more consistent with New Hampshire’s ideals and heritage of valuing individual rights to pass a meaningful Right of Publicity statute—thereby ensuring control of commercial use of its native sons and daughters— rather than catering to the lobbying of massive industries and corporate entities that want to commercialize these Rights of Publicity without encumbrance?
I think the answer is clear.
Here’s a link to an interview I did with WIBC 93.1 FM in Indianapolis, concerning recent developments in New Hampshire and their effort to pass a Right of Publicity statute.
The link includes a brief audio clip of my interview, as well.
The bill was brought by the son of author J.D. Salinger. Apparently, the bill had made its way all the way to the Governor’s desk to be signed, when the Governor refused to sign the bill. The MPAA apparently was a vocal opponent to the legislation.