Posts In "Right of Publicity"

Right of Publicity




Why Celebrities Who Don’t Want to Live in California Might Still Want to Die There

The right of publicity — the legal doctrine that protects the right of celebrities to control and profit from their names, likenesses, and other aspects of their identities — is a familiar topic here at Law Law Land.  But it can be a more complicated subject than we sometimes give it credit for.  Unlike copyright and trademark law, which are (mostly) defined by federal statutes that provide for consistent nationwide rules, the right of publicity is exclusively a creature of state law.  And, thanks to the patchwork of inconsistent and often confusing state laws that have evolved over the years (with heavy influence and lobbying from the heirs of particularly valuable/merchandisable celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein), its application to the dearly departed can get pretty quirky.  For example:

Are you a celebrity who died as a California resident?  Great — your heirs can exclusively exploit your name and likeness for another 70 years!  Oh, were you actually a New York resident when you died?  Just kidding, then, your heirs are totally out of luck, and unauthorized t-shirts with your face will be hitting stores shortly.  That is, unless, your heirs sue in Washington or Indiana, which purport to apply their right of publicity laws to any individual, regardless of whether the celebrity’s state of domicile recognizes the right.  Unless, of course, the federal courts decide that those laws are unconstitutional (a conclusion reached by a Washington district court in a 2011 case involving Jimi Hendrix; the Ninth Circuit will be making its own ruling soon).  And even among those states that expressly recognize a post-mortem right of publicity, there is broad disagreement about the length of protection afforded, the retroactivity of the statutes, and a whole host of other issues.  Got it?  Don’t worry, nobody else does either.

Just ask the lawyers for the estate of Marilyn Monroe, whose recent unsuccessful right of publicity lawsuit could be “Exhibit A” in renewed effort to enact a federal right of publicity law. Continue reading the full story . . . »




“Linsanity” Strikes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

When I used to live in China, people liked to say, “Yao Ming lai le” (Yao Ming has arrived) whenever they saw my excessively tall frame lumbering towards them in a grocery store or crouching down beside them in a preposterously low-ceilinged subway car.  And I would smile, politely (usually while ducking my head under something or other).  At least they didn’t shout “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” whenever I went out.  That would have been weird.

But half a dozen years ago, calling a tall person Yao Ming in China wasn’t unusual.  Yao Ming was (and still is) a household name there.  If you were in China watching the NBA back then, you were watching the Houston Rockets — because that was more or less the only team you could watch on China Central Television 5 (the government approved sports channel).

Now, it’s all about “Linsanity” — both in China, and at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Continue reading the full story . . . »




Becoming Immune to Reputation Damage: Tips from Kim Kardashian?

This blogger is proud to say that I have never watched any show featuring a member of the Kardashian family (okay, okay, unless you count their step-brother Brody Jenner…you know I could never resist The Hills).  I normally try to pretend to steer clear of anything Kardashian, as I fall into the camp of people who wonder, “why the heck is she famous, anyway?”  (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question — I know it’s because of her video debut.)  But I can’t resist writing an update about the Old Navy commercial we posted about back in March 2011.  (Extra shout-out to fellow blogger Megan Rivetti for anticipating Kim K.’s lawsuit, which wasn’t actually filed until July.)

Kim’s lawsuit claims that Old Navy and its parent company The Gap Inc. violated her right of publicity and misled and confused consumers, and seeks $15­–20 million in damages.  (For more on the right of publicity, see here; for more on consumer confusion, see here; for more on how the actress who starred in the Old Navy commercial is totally re-living Kim Kardashian’s life in other ways, see here.)  But now The Gap’s lawyers are moving in on Kim’s “private life” (and the use of air quotes has never seemed more appropriate).  Among other things, they have sought financial records that show how much stores Bebe and Sears earned by making deals with Kim and why Bebe dropped Kim, and information about “Kim Kardashian’s reputation as a singer and dancer.”   As Eriq Gardner of THR, Esq. points out, one reason The Gap may be seeking information about Kim’s business dealings is to make out an argument — often used in defamation cases — that the plaintiff is “libel-proof” because her reputation is so ruined that no additional damage could be caused.

So let’s take a look at the contours of the so-called “libel-proof” defense. Continue reading the full story . . . »




Q&A: What Are the Risks of Using Actors to Portray Real People in a Fictionalized Bio-Pic?

Q:  What are the legalities of using actors to portray real people in a film — a fictionalized bio-pic in which the main character is purely fiction but some of the other characters are real, both living and deceased?  For example, if Forrest Gump did not use actual footage but instead chose to represent those scenes using actors to represent the famous people?

A:  I really liked Forrest Gump when I saw it.  I’m pretty sure I even cried in it.  Now I hate it for some reason.  Maybe it’s just a general backlash against Tom Hanks’ haircut in The Da Vinci Code.  But let’s not get into that.

As to your question…we Americans generally think we all have a 1st Amendment right that gives us the ability to say what we please when we please, which has lead to such enlightening phenomena as Ashton Kutcher’s constant Tweeting (thanks a lot, Founding Fathers).  What is important to understand, however, is that this right of free speech is not absolute.  We are not always free to say what we please, especially when it comes to saying things about other people. Continue reading the full story . . . »




Monkey See, Monkey Sue

On behalf of Law Law Land, I would like to apologize to HBO, the New York courts, and basically, the world at large. A few months ago, my colleague Elisabeth Moriarty suggested that a creative Indonesian monkey should, perhaps, be afforded copyright rights in his adorable self-portrait. That suggestion must have angered the intellectual property gods, who have now unleashed their wrath upon the simian world. Some bozo, I recently learned, sued a cartoon ape for purported right of publicity violations and infliction of emotional distress. Rest easy, Magilla — no one is on to you for that failed bank robbery attempt. I’m talking about the lawsuit recently filed by Johnny Devenanzio… (If you are wondering who this Johnny fellow is, don’t worry, you are not alone.)

For those of you who are not MTV reality show devotees, let’s get you up to speed. Johnny got his start on the Real World Key West, a “true story…of eight strangers…picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real.” Johnny then appeared on The Challenge — which used to be called The Real World-Road Rules Challenge, at least back when anyone I know cared about The Real World, or Road Rules, or any kind of challenge that might pit the two against each other — and he continued to make a fool of himself on numerous The Challengespin-offs (all of which involved copious amounts of alcohol, the occasional fist fight, and a fair amount of stupidity). These shows portrayed Johnny as an arrogant, scheming meathead who likes to stir up drama, earning him the nickname “Johnny Bananas.” (Ironically, you can also hire Johnny to give lectures on alcohol awareness, humility, and conflict resolution. That sounds like a great idea…)

Now, let’s get to the lawsuit. With a little help from lawyer Stephanie Ovadia (yes, the same lawyer who represented our beloved Lindsay Lohan in some of her most entertaining lawsuitsever), Johnny is suing the people behind the hit HBO series Entourage (R.I.P.). The lawsuit is based on a storyline involving a fictional cartoon called Johnny’s Bananas in which Kevin Dillon’s character, Johnny “Drama” Chase, lends his voice to a cartoon ape, aptly named Johnny, who tends to go “bananas” when things don’t go his way. Angered by this storyline (and likely upset after his lawyer pointed out that he has a striking resemblance — both mentally and physically — to an unattractive, hot-headed cartoon ape), the real-life Johnny is now claiming that HBO is trying to capitalize on a nickname that he “is solely responsible for creating.” (Apparently Johnny needs to brush up on his Chicago mobster trivia, as he’s not the only “Johnny Bananas” around.)

In his complaint, Johnny seeks an injunction to bar HBO, Time Warner Cable, and Entourage creator Doug Ellin from (a) distributing or broadcasting Entourage’s final season in any way, shape, or form, and (b) manufacturing and selling Johnny’s Bananas merchandise. Johnny also seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the tremendous emotional distress he suffered as a result of Entourage’s “offensive and disparaging” use of his nickname. Does Johnny have a shot at victory? Continue reading the full story . . . »




Q&A: What Life Rights Do I Need to Write a Screenplay About Someone Who Died But Has Surviving Family?

Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?

A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.

In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.

Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead. Continue reading the full story . . . »




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