Showing posts with label Right of Publicity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Right of Publicity. Show all posts
Friday, December 31, 2010

Halloween Copyright Suit: Albert Einstein Costume Case

Did Albert Einstein's right of publicity go to the grave with him? 

That's what a Halloween what a costume manufacturer alleged in a declaratory relief action recently filed in New York federal court.  The suit was brought to challenge Hebrew University of Jerusalem's claim that using Einstein's name, image and likeness for a "Heroes in Disguise" costume kit , without their consent violated Einstein's postmortem right of publicity. 

Forum Novelties claims that Einstein's right of publicity, which Hebrew University allegedly obtained under Einstein's will, was not descendable since Einstein did not exploit it during his lifetime.  Einstein who once said, "Why is it that nobody understands me, and everybody likes me?," would likely consider Forum's argument nonsensical, as he clearly knew his identity had commercial value beyond his field of professional activity.

Like copyrights and trademarks, the right of publicity can be assigned or licensed, or in the case of Einstein, a former New Jersey resident, bequeathed by will.  Eighteen states recognize a right of publicity that continues after death - some have statutes that cover both the living and the dead, and others, like New Jersey, recognize a common law right of publicity.

Some states have a controversial requirement that the deceased personality must have exploited their right of publicity during their lives.  Professor J. Thomas McCarthy, in his well-regarded treatise, The Rights of Publicity and Privacy (2d Ed), states that the "overwhelming majority rule under either statute or common law is that the right of publicity . . . is not conditioned on lifetime exploitation."

First Amendment Defense

Separate and distinct from the failure to exploit during his lifetime defense, Forum also lays a foundation for a First Amendment defense.   In its complaint it refers to the Heroes in Disguise kits as "intended to be worn by children acting in historically based school plays and in every day play."  Free speech concerns often factor into right of publicity cases.  In this instance, Forum is hoping that the court will see its Einstein disguise kit not just as a commercial product, but as an expressive or communicative work, like a biographic book or film conveying some historical fact.  Whether a mixed use disguise kit used in connection with Halloween "trick or treating" and school plays, takes the use out of the realm of commercial speech, remains to be seen.

While filed in the Southern District of New York, the case ultimately turns on New Jersey law.  New Jersey was the place where Einstein last lived, as such, that state's law governs the postmortem right of publicity issue.  Had Einstein last lived in New York, he would have had no descendible right of publicity, as New York does not recognize postmortem publicity rights. 

New Jersey has a well developed body of right of publicity law.  In fact, New Jersey was one of the first states to recognize a right of publicity.  In Edison v. Edison Polyform Mfg., 67 A. 392 (N.J. Ch. 1907), the court granted Edison an injunction, restraining the use of his name and likeness in the corporate name and in advertisements for a company that sold pain killers.   In Edison, the court reasoned that "[i]f a man's name be his own property ... it is difficult to understand why the peculiar cast of one's features is not also one's property, and why its pecuniary value, if it has one, does not belong to its owner, rather than to the person seeking to make an unauthorized use of it."  Another famous New Jersey  lawsuit, which involved a photograph of an Elvis look-alike entertainer, held that  New Jersey recognized a  postmortem right of publicity.  Presley's Estate v. Russen, 513 F. Supp. 1339 (D. N.J. 1981) (Presley imitator's live concert "experience" neither social commentary nor parody).  In dicta, Russen touched on the lifetime exploitation issue, but according to McCarthy, did not resolve it.

Trademark Claim

In addition to the right of publicity, Albert Einstein, like Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Al Capone, is a federally registered trademark.  Right of publicity and trademark claims often overlap.  Hebrew University owns several Albert Einstein federal trademarks (Reg No. 3591305) for among other things, clocks, bumper stickers, socks, imitation luggage, cookie jars, flower pots, toy butterfly nets and sweatshirts -- but curiously, not sweaters, for which he is closely associated.

In order to prevail on a federal trademark claim, Hebrew University must show that Forum's use of the words "Albert Einstein" is likely to create confusion as to the origin or source of the costumes.  In its complaint, Forum attempts to deflect federal trademark or Lanham Act claims for public confusion, by emphasizing the ample use of disclaimers, such as its house mark and its "Heroes in History" trademark on the packaging.  

Where the commercialization of celebrity rights seems to be forever expanding, the Forum case is a rare, somewhat risky, preemptive attempt to expand the bounds of permissible use of a celebrity's name and likeness.  Exploitative or informational?   A First Amendment protected costume or an advertisement in disguise?  Whatever the court decides, Einstein is clearly a bankable cultural icon worth fighting over.

Forum Novelties, Inc. v. Greenlight, LLC and Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem (10 Civ. 9414, SDNY), filed 12/17/10

Related Links

New York Post

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ask a Lawyer: Do I Need an Interview Release?

["Ask a Lawyer" appears in The Huffington Post. The "Q" to my "A" is  Jeff Rivera, a journalist who reports on publishing and entertainment trends and personalities.]

Q: I'm writing a book based on interviews I've done with political leaders, writers, actors, and other prominent people. Do I need written permission? What can I do to avoid being sued for libel?

A: What can go wrong if you don't have a signed release? Leading the parade of horribles are
claims for defamation, false light invasion of privacy (a misleading implication that the average person would find highly offensive), and breach of contract.   
If you choose to forego a release, free speech, fair use, and implied consent defenses may insulate you against specific claims. However, because of the legal what-ifs, the ill-defined boundaries of implied consent, and the fact public figures are known to have large egos, deep pockets, and lawyers on speed dial, the best practice is to obtain a release.  
A well-drafted release will cover more than just permission to use a person's name and statements. For example, a release can potentially sidestep a lawsuit alleging alterations made to the speaker's words have tarnished their reputation. This is especially helpful when the individual is not a public figure and the statements do not concern a matter of public interest. 
Another potential problem a release can prevent is a disgruntled interviewee's attempt to revoke their consent or demand certain statements be deleted. The drafter of a release will want the unambiguous right to use the individual's name, voice and likeness to promote the interview. A release may include an indemnification clause that shifts liability from the publisher or podcaster to the interviewee. If the interview can be edited at the publisher or podcaster's discretion, the interviewee might try to exclude any editorial changes made without their consent from the indemnity.

Here's a link to sample interview releases
Spoken Releases
Did I hear you say, "What self-respecting political leader, bestselling author, or celebrity would sign an interview or guest appearance release? Excellent point. While less effective than a signed release, you can record the subject's consent. Provided the scope of rights is clearly defined, it's a viable alternative.  
While recording, before the interview starts, state the interview date and the interviewee's name. State clearly that the interview may be edited and used in all media, in whole or in part, in all languages throughout the world, in perpetuity. Then ask if you have their permission to record the actual interview and their answers to your questions. 
Of course, the law will hold you to your promise if the interviewee limits how or where the interview may be used. 
The Parade of Interview Horribles
Infringement and Libel Lead the Parade of Horribles
Copyright. Will the interviewee claim ownership of the interview? Some copyright scholars posit that the interviewer and interviewee jointly own the interview. To quality as a joint work, the interviewer (or podcast host) and the interviewee must agree that they will each own the interview. But that's not how things usually work in the real world. Most interviews do not qualify as joint works under the Copyright Act. In the rare instance an interview qualifies as joint work, either co-owner can issue non-exclusive licenses without the other's consent, subject to a duty to account for any profits made. 

The Copyright Office believes that an interview consists of two separate copyrights. That is right. They believe it consists of two separate copyrights - the interviewer and interviewee each owns the words they spoke. It's an interesting theory but of little practical value to the interviewer. Another legal theory is that the interviewer owns how the questions and answers are selected and arranged. In other words, the interview as a whole. So, who owns the interview? There's no bright-line rule. That's why it's a good idea to get it in writing.  

Libel, Privacy, Publicity. Without a signed release, writers, publishers, and podcasters are vulnerable to being sued for defamation and, a lesser threat, invasion of privacy. 

Libel is a false statement about a living person (business or group) that harms their reputation. Truth is a complete defense to a libel claim. Where the plaintiff is a celebrity or public figure, the plaintiff must show that the false statement was made with reckless disregard for the truth (aka actual malice). While a celebrity or other public figure may have difficulty winning a libel suit because of the legal actual malice standard, written consent is the best defense. If you transcribe accurately and can locate the recording or release, you've taken significant steps to minimize the risk of a successful libel suit. 
The right of publicity is the right to control the commercial exploitation of a person's name, likeness, or voice. However, the use of a celebrity's persona without their permission is generally protected under the "newsworthy" exception, provided it's related to the use and is not expressly misleading. The "newsworthy" exception applies not just to hard news but also matters of legitimate interest to the public, including sports, entertainment, and politics. In some states, a deceased person's right of publicity survives their death and may pass by will or be assigned.  

If you don't obtain consent, the advantage of interviewing a celebrity is that the First Amendment makes it difficult for a celebrity to bring a successful claim for invasion of the right of publicity and libel.   

The gold standard is a well-drafted written release. Document signing apps like DocuSign and Adobe Sign are simple e-signature solutions. Today we're habituated to clicking OK boxes without much thought. So, getting a release signed need not be a burdensome task.
Fair Use
If the ownership issue can't be resolved conclusively, you may be able to roll out the fair use defense. But it's a partial solution. For example, it may not allow you to publish an entire interview.

Fair use allows writers, podcasters, and others to copy (usually) small portions of in-copyright works for socially productive purposes without permission. Finally, as a defense to copyright infringement, fair use allows courts to avoid rigid application of copyright law where the strict application would "stifle the very creativity which the law is designed to foster."

Unfortunately, fair use is not amendable to mechanical rules. The fair use test takes into consideration or weighs four factors: (a) the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is primarily commercial; (b) the nature of the copyrighted work; (c) the amount and importance of what's used in relation to the original work; and (d) if the use supersedes a market for the original?

Media Liability Insurance

If the subject matter is sensitive and you don't have a signed release, given the murkiness of the law, media liability insurance is something to look into. It's a specialized form of insurance that covers claims of copyright and trademark infringement, invasion of privacy, defamation, and other contextual errors and omissions. Some policies even cover claims of misappropriation of ideas and negligent publication. Most of these policies also cover defending a lawsuit, including attorney's fees and court costs. 

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I Shall Be Released, performed by Bob Dylan
Image:  Parade of Horribles and Antiques, Portland, Maine
Photographer:  Unknown
Year:  1920
Credit: Main Historical Society