Intellectual Property on the Red Carpet

The often-tense tango between celebrities and the media is accompanied by the unspoken reality that they both need each other.  Paparazzi and media companies make their living selling celebrity photos and stories, which generate the fame that celebrities need in order to earn millions for keeping us entertained. The conflicts generally hit the public consciousness only when a famous actor, athlete or musician decides to take out their wrath on a pushy photographer, but our court system often plays a bigger role than most people think.   

This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco dismissed a right-to-publicity lawsuit that’s gaining notice in entertainment circles. The court ruled that a former star of the 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family” could not pursue claims over the sale of her photographs from red-carpet events. Actress Shirley Jones – a.k.a. Shirley Partridge – filed the lawsuit in November 2010 against a digital image company that purchased red-carpet photos of Jones and later posted them for sale on the company’s website.

Jones, who sells her own photos at various events, argued that her right to publicity was violated because she never gave permission for the company to post her image online.  After her original claim was dismissed by the trial court, Jones’ proposed class action suffered a similar fate at the 9th Circuit when a three-judge panel decided that the actress had given up her right to publicity by willingly walking down the red carpet.

The proliferation of the Internet has made celebrities and their lawyers increasingly vigilant when it comes to protecting their images, movies and recordings. Former pro basketball superstar Michael Jordan came out on the losing end of a right-to-publicity lawsuit earlier this year after an Illinois judge ruled that a grocery store’s advertisement congratulating Jordan on his NBA Hall of Fame induction was protected under the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. Jordan, who sought $5 million in damages, is appealing the ruling.

And earlier this year, rock-n-roller Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt were cleared to pursue claims against video game maker Activision over the use of the band’s image in the “Band Hero” game. According to the lawsuit, the band was never told that users of the game could use unadvertised codes to unlock hidden features that allow the game to portray band members performing songs from other artists. The case is expected to go to trial later this year.

Being rich and famous may seem a carefree existence, but apparently you still need a good lawyer. 



Posted: 8/1/2012 12:00:00 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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