Super Bowl advertising is fertile ground for Right of Publicity licensing. My company more often than not will have a campaign using one of my clients. Inevitably, then, there could also be instances of advertising which wanders into the realm of a Right of Publicity infringement.
Without saying I believe it is or is not an infringement, or whether it was authorized or not, there is no denying who the Cetaphil advertisement of a father and daughter bonding over friendship bracelets and football jerseys was connecting to the surge of attention brought by Taylor Swift dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the 2023 season. My Right of Publicity class will use this spot for discussion of Right of Publicity analysis.
In the Cetaphil advertising spot, no reference to the Super Bowl or the Kansas City Chiefs is made directly; however, several football jerseys are depicted, one in a red-based color, another in an away-uniform white-based color. They are otherwise unmarked jerseys, but at least arguably are capable of being viewed as Kansas City Chiefs jerseys. The timing of the spot occurs during the “big game,” and perhaps the viewer is expected to arrive with a built-in familiarity of one of the teams in the game and to Taylor Swift and her circumstantial but heavily-publicized connection to the Kansas City Chiefs.
So with respect to Taylor Swift and the Right of Publicity, would it be actionable? Throughout the spot, the father and daughter seem not to be connected as each looks at their phones or have seemingly disparate interests. The numbers on the jerseys in the spot are 89 and 13, both of which need no explanation to Swifties or the Taylor Swift fanbase, as those numbers are immediately recognizable as connected to Swift (arguably even more so when used together). Numerous close-ups of friendship bracelets culminate in both the father and daughter wearing both friendship bracelets, and both wearing football jerseys in the Kansas City Chiefs colors, numbered 89 and 13. The father-daughter disconnect is remedied as the father wears friendship bracelets like his daughter, the daughter wears a jersey like her father, and they both sit down in front of the television presumably to watch the “game.”
Do these references require a built-in awareness of the storylines dominating the 2023 season and the 2024 Super Bowl? To be clear, no NFL or Kansas City Chiefs trademarks are directly depicted, nor is Taylor Swift named or directly portrayed. Do these details render the spot clear of violations? Again, I am not giving an assessment, just raising the question, and from one of the following links, I am not the first to ask the question.
Here is one link to the spot, which posting is captioned “Taylor Swift Cetaphil commercial:” Cetaphil 2024 Super Bowl commercial
Here is a link to one write up that references the dynamics in play, and also considers whether fair use would provide safe harbor. Cetaphil’s Marketing Tactics balance Taylor Swift Imagery and IP Rights
The standard for infringement is identifiability, perhaps qualified by the association being unequivocal (“unequivocal identifiability”). It is probably safe to say that Taylor Swift, and only Taylor Swift, is unequivocally identifiable from the advertisement. Are the interests of fair use served by an advertisement like this being deemed permissible? To be clear, it has not been “deemed permissible” nor to my knowledge has any action been taken against it. It may remain theoretical, but context matters in Right of Publicity analysis. Given the attention on the Travis Kelce-Taylor Swift relationship throughout the 2023 NFL season, culminating in the Kansas City Chiefs reaching Super Bowl LVIII, and Taylor Swift being shown several times in any game she attended, then the context may dictate that further identification of Taylor Swift, the Kansas City Chiefs, or the Super Bowl were unnecessary because the context of the use removed any uncertainty. Should it have been licensed? Should it be fair use?
SCOTUS Prince ruling against fair use in Goldsmith Andy Warhol case may connect to upcoming AI issues
As has been well-documented, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of photographer Lynn Goldsmith in finding that Andy Warhol’s Prince series was not a transformative use of Goldsmith’s photograph under fair use analysis. As it pertains more directly to the Right of Publicity, it is interesting to note that in Comedy III, Warhol’s Marilyn was the cited example of a transformative work. Be that as it may, in light of fast-developing discussions pertaining to Artificial Intelligence (AI), the SCOTUS Warhol ruling may provide support for the argument that AI creative output is a derivative work of the original. We’ll see.
Mayim Bialik CBD lawsuit
and here is a link to the Court’s grant of preliminary injunction and TRO: Florida court grants Mayim Bialik request for preliminary injunction and TRO
Without tackling the entirety of issues involved, it seems worth noting that the most recent coverage reports that the UK-based NFT company, Opulous, may be arguing California does not have jurisdiction over Lil Yachty’s suit for Opulous’ NFT offering and promotional activities related thereto utilizing Lil Yachty’s Right of Publicity and other rights and interests. The lawsuit alleges various violations and claims.
When analyzing the totality of a use, the final execution of the product involved (if a product-based offering) is not the entirety of the matter, as promotional efforts also must be considered, among other things. The value of an association with a celebrity or valuable Right of Publicity (in popular parlance, name image likeness) can accrue before any product is sold. NFTs, in particular, can generate repeat sales, and can sell for undetermined amounts based on the market response. The facts of the Lil Yachty lawsuit indicate that social media promotions, and funding for the defendant company, were aided by the promotion of the NFT in question.
It will be interesting to observe how the fact that defendants reportedly had communications with Lil Yachty in the planning stages for the NFT, then broke off negotiations yet proceeded with the use. That tends to be a strong fact, if accurate, in plaintiff’s favor in cases such as this.
If California does not have jurisdiction over this case, it may be a fair question whether defendant hermetically sealed its promotional efforts from California, not to mention how bids or potential sales from the jurisdiction in question were prevented. Of course, much depends on the specifics of a claim of this nature, what is established as factual, and related details.
Here is a link to Billboard’s coverage of the suit, which includes the complaint in question:
Lil Yachty lawsuit against Opulous, et. al., for unauthorized NFT activity
At the bottom of this entry is a link to more detailed analysis of the Copyright Restoration Act bill introduced by Senator Hawley in mid-May 2022, but for this entry, I will offer just a few observations. The bill seeks to curtail copyright duration and recast it in the former model of life of the author plus 28 years with an optional 28-year renewal. An explanation accompanying the bill uses the word “woke” twice in one sentence, and seems premised on the idea that the current copyright duration model was simply a Republican handout to Disney.
It could be interesting if someone were to research whether the prior legislative activity leading to the current copyright duration model can rightly be characterized as purely a Republican effort, or merely a handout, but the legislation was processed and deliberated over. The quotations accompanying the introduction of the bill seem to make clear that the bill is not about good, needed legislation, but rather some form of political posturing, which may not be the best foundation for legislative activity or intellectual property recognition. While the former model of 28 years with a potential renewal window has generated a lot of legal work for some due to its complexity and susceptibility to being manipulated, it could also be a good point to research whether the 28 plus 28 renewal is an efficient, clear and fair model to utilize. There are good reasons the copyright model moved on from the former structure.
What happens in the copyright realm often makes it way to the Right of Publicity realm. It seems the bill is not likely to pass, but it could be an entry worth marking for posterity.
For more information on the bill, see:
Don’t Say Copyright: lexology link to Frankfurt Kurnit Klien & Selz analysis article
Thought everyone should know.
Just a quick note based on the Second Circuit’s recent ruling in Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, where it determined that Warhol’s Prince series was not transformative and therefore was subject to copyright provisions in relation to the reference photograph Warhol used. The court went through a fair use analysis, and the case was primarily concerning copyright, but it is interesting to contrast this decision with the Comedy III case, which was primarily Right of Publicity-related. In Comedy III, the Three Stooges artwork was held to not be sufficiently transformative, and the court used Warhol’s Blue Marilyn as the example of a work that would, in contrast, and in the court’s estimation, be sufficiently transformative. I’ll let those motivated to seek more run their own searches rather than post links here, as there is no lack of content, analysis and discussion being offered on this recent ruling. I have not, as yet, seen reference to the contrast with the Comedy III case, so I thought it may be useful to note it here.
Departing from the usual Halloween release date, Forbes issued its annual top-earning deceased celebrities list on Friday, November 13th in 2020. A few takeaways, in no particular order:
1. Unsurprisingly, given the worldwide pandemic, almost all the reported numbers are down. Some may have more immunity than others, and those that went up, like Dr. Seuss were bolstered by television, movie and media deals. Some of that may be one-time bursts.
2. Elvis Presley was closing in on a 50% decline. Graceland, as a tourist destination, no doubt accounts for much of that given closures in 2020.
3. Prince is down yet again another year further from his death, as has been the trend. The summary on Prince mentions only music sales.
4. Those with the misfortune of making 2019’s list due to early departure, XXXTentacion and Nipsey Hussle, are gone.
5. Those with the misfortune of making 2020’s list due to early departure include Kobe Bryant and Juice WRLD. It will be interesting to see if Kobe Bryant is a one-time, one-year entrant or will make next year’s list as well.
6. Not-much-of-a-prediction: Eddie Van Halen will be on next 2021’s list. Though he passed away over a month prior to the release of the 2020 list, that is neither enough time to account increased sales, nor enough time to process his passing into a list that was no doubt already well underway in October.
7. The article includes a statement about its methodology, which includes sources I use when appropriate in valuations.
Last, a word about the often used term “delebrity” in relation to deceased celebrities. I get it, though it’s never really hit me as particularly clever or useful as a term. More importantly, no one I know who actually works with the heirs, family, and estates of notable deceased icons uses this term. It’s hard to take someone seriously who uses this term in their scholarship, publications, or writings. But keep using it, those who do, because it provides a revealing tell.
Here is a link to Forbes’ 2020 list: https://www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2020/11/13/the-highest-paid-dead-celebrities-of-2020/?sh=37a974e03b4b&utm_source=Licensing+International+Database&utm_campaign=b3b89e5adb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_12_18_01_57_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ec0e484a60-b3b89e5adb-397655773&mc_cid=b3b89e5adb&mc_eid=a31363c945
Yes, there is a Right of Publicity interest pertaining to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died a week ago at the age of 87. As always, application and analysis of her Right of Publicity would depend on context and specifics in any particular situation. But sticking to overview observations, since she was a lawyer, it may be a safe assumption that Justice Ginsburg had a testamentary plan in place. Since she was attuned to intellectual property matters, it is possible there were specific Right of Publicity provisions in her testamentary plan. Since she is commonly referred to as RBG, it is safe to assume RGB could unequivocally identify Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And given the preceding points, it is safe to assume potential commercial uses or trademark activity could intersect with some of these points. This may all be academic, of course. We’ll see.
Here is a link to an article I wrote for Licensing International’s Executive Voices series: https://licensinginternational.org/news/discernment-in-licensing-and-enforcement/
A company in New York has begun offering “Dr. Fauci” doughnuts, which apparently involve edible paper on the doughnut with Dr. Fauci’s image printed on it. Dr. Fauci has become a daily fixture in the coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic and a visible leader in the response and information concerning the outbreak. Donuts Delite, the company selling the doughnuts on a nationwide basis, reportedly, will continue selling the doughnuts “as long as they are in demand.” Here is a link to the story: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/us/dr-fauci-doughnuts-trnd/index.html Dr. Fauci Doughnuts
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.
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