Sam Moore loses publicity rights dispute with The Weinstein Company while the use of the Transformative Use Test is applied again

Publicity Rights continue to vex courts and counsel. An October 31st decision of the Sixth Circuit in Moore v. Weinstein provides yet another unfortunate twist to the judicial approach to balancing publicity rights with free speech rights.

The litigation stems from the 2008 film Soul Men produced by The Weinstein Company starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. Grammy winning artist, Sam Moore claimed the movie was an unauthorized life story because of the title, story-line, and music used in the film. Having lost on appeal, Moore took his fight to the Sixth Circuit where the court again sided with The Weinstein Company.

The problem with the decision is not the outcome. Instead the concern is that the court interpreted a state law which relied on the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition to determine the scope of publicity rights but still insisted on adding an additional opportunity for plaintiffs to stop communicative works if the defendants could not prove the works were transformative.

State law protection of publicity rights are constrained by free speech concerns.[1] Publicity rights are protected as a common law extension of privacy,[2] but like other common law doctrine affecting speech, many aspects have been constitutionalized.[3] Publicity rights are properly considered a form of limitation on commercial speech and should be subject to legitimate content regulation as is allowed by the FCC and FTC, namely intermediate scrutiny.[4] Traditional publicity rights doctrine first asks whether the use of the name or likeness involves a commercial transaction.[5] The commercial transaction may be the sale of a commercial item or an endorsement of a good or service.[6] If the use of the publicity rights constitutes an endorsement, then the FTC endorsement guidelines offer further liability for unauthorized use.

In theory, formulations such as that embodied in the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition should provide clear breathing room between expressive works and their commercial cousins. As the Sixth Circuit recently stated, “A viable right-of-publicity claim usually requires (1) defendant’s use of plaintiff’s identity; (2) the appropriation of plaintiff’s name or likeness to the defendant’s advantage, commercially or otherwise; (3) lack of consent; and (4) resulting injury.”[7]

Section 47 of the Restatement sets an explicit limit on the scope of publicity rights:

The name, likeness, and other indicia of a person’s identity are used “for purposes of trade” under the rule stated in § 46 if they are used in advertising the user’s goods or services, or are placed on merchandise marketed by the user, or are used in connection with services rendered by the user. However, use “for purposes of trade” does not ordinarily include the use of a person’s identity in news reporting, commentary, entertainment, works of fiction or nonfiction, or in advertising that is incidental to such uses.[8]

The scope of publicity rights explicitly excludes news, entertainment, and creative works.[9] The limitation embodied in the Restatement is written to be categorical, which provides for greater certainty and reinforces the importance of free speech rights and avoidance of a chilling effect caused by fear of litigation involving a person’s identity in a communicative work. Comment d. to the Restatement recognizes this concern by stating “[b]roader restrictions on the use of another’s identity in entertainment, news, or other creative works threaten significant public and constitutional interests.”[10]

Nonetheless, in practice, publicity rights are tested under a variety of inconsistent court-fashioned doctrine which do not balance commercial and speech interest nearly as cleanly as does the Restatement. “Various commentators have noted that right of publicity claims—at least those that address the use of a person’s name or image in an advertisement—are akin to trademark claims because in both instances courts must balance the interests in protecting the relevant property right against the interest in free expression.”[11]

The Rogers test[12] most squarely distinguishes between commercial works and communicative works. Under that test, a court should not “permit the right of publicity to bar the use of a celebrity’s name in a movie title unless the title was ‘wholly unrelated’ to the movie or was ‘simply a disguised commercial advertisement for the sale of goods or services.’”[13] This test most closely mirrors the FTC commercial endorsement guidelines, particularly if the recognition of disguised commercial advertisements extends to the various undisclosed endorsements.

The Predominant Use test loosely balances the free speech rights of the publisher against the economic goals of that publisher.[14] Works that predominantly exploit the commercial value of identity must certainly include all celebrity magazines, ESPN, and the Sunday section of the New York Times. The fact that a work is published under a profit motive does not transform the content into commercial speech.[15] The Predominant Use Test is ineffectively under-inclusive and over-inclusive, making it unhelpful for jurisprudential guidance.[16]

The third common test flows from copyright law rather than trademark law. Based upon the Supreme Court jurisprudence involving fair use, the California Supreme Court adopted the transformative test from the first factor of copyright fair use to determine the right of publicity free speech doctrine.

According to the Supreme Court as applied by the California Supreme Court,

the central purpose of the inquiry into this fair use factor ‘is to see … whether the new work merely “supercede[s] the objects” of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”[17]

To the first factor of the copyright test embodied in Transformative Test, the California Supreme Court obliquely reintroduced the copyright fair use test’s fourth factor: the effect on the potential market for the work.[18]

Virtual worlds and video games may trigger the most direct conflict between publicity rights and free speech jurisprudence.[19] The communicative nature of video games highlighted in Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n should require the medium be treated like any other.[20] Nonetheless, both video game manufacturers and the courts tend to continue to treat these works as if they are commercial products rather than works of expression protected by the First Amendment.[21] As products, they are commercial works subject to the Transformative Test or another of the balancing tests rather than excluded from the limitation in publicity rights that such rights only apply to commercial products or the advertisements for such goods and services.

The communication in a video game generally is not a proposal of a commercial transaction or the sale of a product, so rights of publicity simply do not apply.[22] If instead, the media is used to make an endorsement or advertise a commercial product, then the FTC endorsement guidelines and the state publicity rights come back into play.[23]

This distinction should guide the behavior and social media policies of employers. To the extent they are creating content as media broadcasters, there are no publicity rights constraints and no endorsement concerns.[24] If instead the content is designed to promote commercial transactions, serve as advertisements, or sell merchandise, then permission is required from the endorser and the endorser must be providing factual, honest information.

The confusion surrounding publicity rights raises serious chilling effects. As reported in the Hollywood Reporter, the NCAA is trying to take up an appeal in Keller v. EA Sports despite the settlement in the case following a ruling unfavorable to EA based on an application of the Transformative Use Test. The NCAA petition for cert (read here) provided:

[T]he interplay between right-of-publicity claims and the First Amendment is an issue on which the lower courts are badly divided. It is also important, affecting the fundamental rights of a wide array of speakers—from movie and television producers (e.g., The Social Network) to biographers and songwriters (Bob Dylan’s Hurricane), to videogame makers, like one of the defendants here.

Something must be done to restore to return the presumption of free speech and eliminate the chilling effect of publicity rights claims against communicative works. Publicity rights are very important economic and personal rights which should be enforced against commercial theft of identity, but that does not mean they should be used to stifle the ability of other authors and artists. A Supreme Court decision in Keller will be unlikely to develop the balance needed to restore the law. Instead federal legislation is a more likely tool to get the balance correct.

[1] See, e.g., Donahue v. Warner Bros. Pictures Distributing Corp., 272 P.2d 177 (Utah 1954) (publicity rights statute limited to the use of name or likeness in advertising, or the sale of “some collateral commodity.”); Cal. Civ. Code § 3344(a) (West 1997) (limiting protection to use “on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent.”).

[2] See Samuel Warren & Louis Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). See also William L. Prosser, Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383, 383–85 (1960).

[3] Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., 433 U.S. 562, 577 (1977) (In distinguishing between defamation, false light and publicity cases, the Court explained that the “Constitution does not prevent Ohio from … deciding to protect the entertainer’s incentive” to perform.)

[4] See Sorrell, 131 S. Ct. 2653, supra note 53 at 2663; Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 562 (1980); Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U.S. 447 (1978) (upholding state lawyer advertising regulation); Virginia State Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 771-772 (1976) (establishing First Amendment protection for commercial speech and recognizing right of recipients of commercial speech to have access to the content).

[5] See, e.g., Comedy III Productions, Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 21 P.3d 797, 802 (Cal. 2001).

[6] Id. at 802 (although the speech was not an “advertisement, endorsement, or sponsorship of any product,” defendant nonetheless “used the likeness of The Three Stooges on . . . products, merchandise, or goods within the meaning of the statute.”).

[7] Moore v. Weinstein Co. LLC, 12-5715, (6th Cir. Oct. 31, 2013) (unreported) quoting Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition.

[8] Restatement (Third) Unfair Competition §47 (1995).

[9]  Id.  at cmt. c. (“the use of a person’s name or likeness in news reporting, whether in newspapers, magazines, or broadcast news, does not infringe the right of publicity. The interest in freedom of expression also extends to use in entertainment and other creative works, including both fiction and nonfiction.”).

[10] Id. at cmt. d.

[11] Hart v. Elec. Arts, Inc., 717 F.3d 141, 155 (3d Cir. 2013).

[12] Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir.1989).

[13] Id.  at 1004.

[14] Doe v. TCI Cablevision, 110 S.W.3d 363 (Mo.2003) (en banc).

If a product is being sold that predominantly exploits the commercial value of an individual’s identity, that product should be held to violate the right of publicity and not be protected by the First Amendment, even if there is some “expressive” content in it that might qualify as “speech” in other circumstances. If, on the other hand, the predominant purpose of the product is to make an expressive comment on or about a celebrity, the expressive values could be given greater weight.

Id.  at 374.

[15] See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 265 (1964). See also Valentine v. Chrestensen, 316 U.S. 52, 55 (1942) (commercial speech cannot evade regulation by appending protected first amendment content).

[16] See Hart, supra note 73 at 154 (“By our reading, the Predominant Use Test is subjective at best, arbitrary at worst, and in either case calls upon judges to act as both impartial jurists and discerning art critics.”).

[17] Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 25 Cal.4th 387, 404 (2001) (quoting Campbell v. Acuff–Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994) (citations omitted).

[18] Id.  at 407.

Furthermore, in determining whether a work is sufficiently transformative, courts may find useful a subsidiary inquiry, particularly in close cases: does the marketability and economic value of the challenged work derive primarily from the fame of the celebrity depicted? If this question is answered in the negative, then there would generally be no actionable right of publicity. When the value of the work comes principally from some source other than the fame of the celebrity—from the creativity, skill, and reputation of the artist—it may be presumed that sufficient transformative elements are present to warrant First Amendment protection. If the question is answered in the affirmative, however, it does not necessarily follow that the work is without First Amendment protection—it may still be a transformative work.

[19] See Hart, supra note 73 at 152-53; O’Bannon v. NCAA, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19170 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2010) (dismissing Keller v. Elec. Arts, Inc., 2010 WL 530108 (N.D. Cal. 2010) to substitute anti-trust claims for publicity rights claims); In re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litig., 2011-2 Trade Cas. (CCH) ¶ 77, 549 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (ongoing litigation emphasizing anti-trust implication of refusing to negotiate rights with former NCAA players).

[20] Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, supra note 37 at 2737 n.4.

[21] See Hart, supra note 71 at 148-49 (“Appellee [EA Sports] concedes, for purposes of the motion and appeal, that it violated Appellant’s right of publicity; in essence, misappropriating his identity for commercial exploitation.”)

[22] Cf. Comedy III, supra note 71 at 802; Hart, supra note 75 at 149.

[23] Garon, supra note 52 at 615, 624.

[24] See Facenda v. N.F.L. Films, Inc., 542 F.3d 1007, 1017 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting U.S. Healthcare, Inc. v. Blue Cross of Greater Phila., 898 F.2d 914, 933 (3d Cir. 1990)).

The Estate contends that the program is commercial speech, and we agree. Our Court has “three factors to consider in deciding whether speech is commercial: (1) is the speech an advertisement; (2) does the speech refer to a specific product or service; and (3) does the speaker have an economic motivation for the speech.”