Timed Out vs Youabian: The Conkle Firm Establishes that the Right of Publicity is an Assignable Property Right

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It is virtually impossible to get through a day without seeing the “right of publicity” in action.  Everywhere, there are advertisements featuring photographs of professional models and celebrities of every variety published to sell all types of products and services.  It is strange, then, that no statute or case precedent in California specifically established that models and celebrities have the ability to assign or license those publicity rights for proper use and for enforcement if their likenesses are misused.  Until now.

On September 12, 2014, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the arguments of Eric Engel of the Conkle Firm (working with co-counsel at Hall & Lim), and established the first published precedent in California that explicitly holds that the right of publicity is assignable.  In Timed Out, LLC v. Youabian, Inc., Case No. B242820, the Second District Court of Appeal finally settled a long-simmering dispute that had confused many lower courts:  Whether the right of publicity is a “personal right” that can only be exercised during lifetime by the individual owner, or whether the right of publicity is a form of intellectual property that can be freely assigned and licensed to others for use and enforcement.

The dispute had its origin many years ago, when an influential tort law treatise by famed Professor Prosser observed that the right of publicity historically derived from the “right of privacy.”  The classic form of the “right of privacy” is protection against hurt feelings and injury to personal reputation that can occur when personal information about a private individual is published without her consent.  That type of injury is considered personal in nature and cannot generally be assigned.  But, as the Timed Out decision observed, the right of publicity has evolved away from its origin into a distinctly commercial and non-personal interest.

The right of publicity is now virtually the opposite of the original right of privacy:  The right of publicity is the ability of a person to control the commercial value of the use of her image and information.  Timed Out recognizes that a person’s likeness, voice, signature or other identifying characteristics can have substantial commercial value, regardless of whether the person is a celebrity and regardless of whether the commercial value of the identified person’s “persona” is created by happenstance or by investment of great time and effort.  Timed Out finally establishes that the value created is a form of property, freely assignable by the person who owns it.

The Court of Appeal also resolved a separate important issue that is frequently in dispute in right of publicity actions:  Whether federal copyright law subsumes and preempts right of publicity claims.  Timed Out v. Youabian established that the right of publicity is distinct from copyright interests in a photograph or image, and that right of publicity claims generally are not preempted by federal copyright laws.

The effect of Timed Out LLC v. Youabian, Inc. for models, celebrities, manufacturers, advertisers and resellers is to finally establish that the right of publicity can be licensed and assigned to third parties, and enforced by third parties such as Timed Out, and that such rights are independent of federal copyright interests.  That means models and celebrities no longer have to make the difficult decision whether it is worth their time, expense and effort to pursue claims when their publicity rights are violated – they can assign the affected publicity rights to agencies such as Timed Out to pursue the claims.  Manufacturers, advertisers and resellers will no longer waste effort and time attempting to determine whether the publicity rights were assignable.  They can and should instead focus on establishing whether they had the necessary rights to use the image, photograph, likeness, voice or other identifying characteristic of the “persona” of the model or celebrity.  This puts a premium on making sure that any “model releases” obtained prior to advertising are well-written and appropriate for each particular use of the model or celebrity’s photograph, image, likeness or other identifying features.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel counsels and helps clients avoid these kinds of issues with effective model releases, licenses and assignments.  Timed Out v. Youabian demonstrates that CK&E is also at the forefront of enforcing the right of publicity when model and celebrity rights are violated.

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Manuel Noriega and Lindsay Lohan have No Doubt about their Right of Publicity

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What do Manuel Noriega, Lindsay Lohan and the rock group No Doubt have in common? All of them have sued videogame makers for infringement of their rights of publicity. On July 15, 2014, Manuel Noriega sued videogame maker Activision Blizzard in Los Angeles Superior Court when his name and animated likeness were included in the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Less than two weeks earlier, Lindsay Lohan filed a Complaint alleging that her likeness was used, under a pseudonym of “Lacey Jonas,” in the Rockstar Games videogame Grand Theft Auto V. No Doubt alleged that Activision exceeded the consent it gave for use of band members’ likenesses as avatars in the videogame Band Hero.

These claims seem to be emblematic of a recent upswing in claims of violations of the “right of publicity”.  One prominent example is Davis v. Electronic Arts, a case on behalf of some 6,000 retired pro football players who are suing Electronic Arts over use of their identities in the Madden NFL video game series.  In arguments pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, Electronic Arts claims First Amendment protection for claimed “transformative use” of the players’ images.  Even if that argument were successful, it will not likely be of much help to others who simply use a photograph or other unadorned likeness of an individual.

California and most other states recognize that a person has a right to protect his or her name, likeness, signature, voice and other identifying aspects of personae from commercial exploitation without consent. The right of publicity protects not just photographs but all forms of likenesses, including animated versions of people in videogames. The right of publicity is a type of intellectual property – in some ways analogous to (but not the same as) a trademark. An important point to understand is that the right of publicity is not ordinarily precluded simply by ownership or license of the copyright in the image – even if you took a photo of Lindsay Lohan yourself and you own the copyright in that photograph, that in itself generally does not mean you can use it in an advertisement to sell a product without Lindsay Lohan’s consent.

The right of publicity is distinct from rights protecting against slander or defamation – there is no requirement that a person’s reputation has been harmed in any way, or that he or she ever had a positive reputation. Manuel Noriega is probably best known as a former leader of Panama who was deposed, tried and convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. Nonetheless, Manuel Noriega has the same right to prevent others from commercially exploiting his name and likeness as anyone.

An important and often overlooked aspect of the right of publicity is that it is a right held by everyone – not just celebrities. While celebrities presumably may command more money for the commercial use of their identities, everyone has the same right to protect his or her name from commercial exploitation without consent, regardless of previous anonymity.

This is a particularly important lesson for businesses that might be inclined to scour the Internet, copy a photograph of some unknown model and use it in advertising or packaging. In addition to the risk that unauthorized copying and use might violate a copyright in the photo, such unauthorized use for commercial promotion runs a strong risk of violating the model’s right of publicity and giving rise to a claim for damages. Even a business that has ordered a photo of a professional model specifically for use in advertising or packaging would do well to check whether the model signed a release that covers the particular use, because model releases can differ in scope, duration and effect.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has been involved on both sides of the right of publicity – defending actions by models against companies who thought they had sufficient releases of the models’ rights of publicity, and asserting models’ rights to be compensated for the commercial value of their likenesses. CK&E attorneys stay current on the developing law of the right of publicity, which is a quickly expanding area of law affecting everyone from manufacturers and marketers to models, celebrities and ordinary people.

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