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.