Have you ever seen Tony Romo in a Gatorade ad? How about George Clooney in a commercial for Nespresso?
If so, then you can bet that these uses of a celebrity’s face and personality were negotiated, and that the celebrity received a large payday. Many companies in a swath of industries are willing to pay big bucks to get the right celebrity to endorse their product.
However, have you ever wondered what happens when someone uses a photo of a celebrity to sell a product without that individual’s permission? If this happens, then the wronged celebrity may be able to bring legal action against the company. This is when a little-known legal principal called the right of publicity comes into play.
What is the right of publicity? Does it apply only to famous folks or could you have a claim if someone uses your likeness without your permission?
The answers can be complicated. Keep reading to learn more.
What Is the Right of Publicity?
The right of publicity refers to the individual’s right to have control over the commercial exploitation of their persona or name. Most frequently, this principal is associated with famous people because it’s most often their personas that are used to promote products.
The right of publicity only covers commercial exploitation. If a newspaper or magazine wants to print an article and photograph about a celebrity, this doesn’t fall under the right of publicity. This is why gossip magazines and websites can exist. Of course, people who become the subjects of untruthful or misleading articles in these media have the right to sue for defamation.
Essentially, if a person’s likeness is used for public interest, information or news, this is a permissible use and is not a violation of the right of publicity.
While the right of publicity is most often associated with celebrities, it can apply to a private citizen. As an example, imagine that your picture was snapped without your knowledge while you were drinking a bottle of a famous brand of soda. If the soda company used your photo to promote their product without your permission, they could be liable for misappropriation of the right of publicity.
Avoiding this kind of problem is why actors and models who are used in advertisements are asked to sign releases or consents that allow the use of their image or other likeness.
Related to the Right of Privacy
The right of publicity is related to the right of privacy. In general, the principles of invasion of privacy are designed to prohibit the use of a person’s likeness or name to gain some sort of advantage.
However, an independent claim may be made when an individual’s likeness or name is appropriated for commercial purposes. Although the right of publicity is most frequently associated with famous people, it also is true that any individual possesses the right to prevent the unauthorized use of their image or name to sell a product.
It is worth noting that the right of publicity effectively grants a property right to each individual’s identity, whereas the right of privacy is designed to protect people from the emotional anguish that may arise from the open publication of private matters that may be intimate, embarrassing or portray the individual in falsely offensive manner.
Who Does the Right of Publicity Affect?
While most of these cases are related to “celebrities,” the precise definition of celebrity is purposefully vague. For instance, a person may be well-known in Texas, but does it follow that they are famous across the US? What about a person who was famous for being on a television show in the 1980s? Are they a celebrity after not working in the entertainment field for 30 years?
Currently, there is no federal law with regard to the right of publicity. This means that each state is responsible for related legislation. Some states, like Texas, have right of publicity laws on the books, but other jurisdictions rely on common law and statutory law to protect the individual’s right of publicity.
Similarly, some states only protect the right of publicity for famous individuals while all individuals are protected in other states.
What About the First Amendment?
First Amendment protection is granted in tiers, with the most protection being granted to news. Less protection is offered to uses of a person’s identity for fiction, and even less protection is given to the advertising use of a person’s likeness or name.
Accordingly, people can be mentioned in the news in a factual manner without running afoul of the First Amendment or the right of publicity. It’s even possible to use a real person within a work of fiction, like a novel, as long as it’s made clear that the overall work is fiction.
The Right of Publicity and Distinctive Voices
It’s not just a person’s image or name that may be protected under the right of publicity. Two cases involving sound-alike performers who imitated Bette Midler and Tom Waits both found that the singers had the right to control the use of their distinctive voices – even if it wasn’t them providing the voice work.
Contact Williams IP Law
If you’re hoping to get a celebrity to endorse your product or are curious about what’s involved when you feel that your image has been used for a commercial purpose without your permission, then contact Williams IP Law for efficient, common-sense solutions.