Originally Published in TEXAS LAWYER*
Sharing photos has never been easier. From checking out Ellen Degeneres’ selfies at the Oscars to uploading family vacation pictures, even lawyers don’t always think through how third parties might use their likenesses. But two pending court cases might change that.
Imagine that a photographer allows an engaged couple to post engagement photos online. Then, a political mailer features—without the couple’s permission—a photo of them kissing, superimposed on a new background with the prominent text “State Sen. [XYZ]‘s idea of ‘family values’?” It happens during a heated primary race where gay marriage is a hot button topic, the mailers oppose same-sex marriage, and the newly engaged people are two gay men.
Or, imagine someone learning via Facebook that a full-color, quarter-page advertisement used her likeness and included the statements: “I am positive (+),” “I have rights,” and “People who are HIV positive are protected by the New York State Human Rights Law. Do you know your rights?” By the way, the woman doesn’t have HIV and didn’t authorize use of her likeness.
Both fact patterns are the subjects of current litigation, with the plaintiffs bringing causes of action for misappropriation of the right of publicity and/or privacy.
Colorado common law governing torts for appropriation of name or likeness controls the political mailer case. The law requires a plaintiff to prove that: the defendant used the plaintiff’s name or likeness; the use was for the defendant’s own purposes or benefit, commercially or otherwise; the plaintiff suffered damages; and the defendant caused the damages.
In a March 31 opinion in Hill v. Public Advocate of the United States, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss in relevant part; the defendants are all political advocates. The Hill court stated, “[A] plaintiff will not prevail on [an appropriation claim] if a ‘defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s name and likeness is privileged under the First Amendment.’” But the use of the name and likeness must occur in the context of, and reasonably relate to, a publication concerning a matter that is newsworthy or of legitimate public concern.
The court found that the men’s images were used without permission, but the use was not commercial. The use communicated a matter of legitimate public concern and did not issue a call to purchase a product or service. The mailers were sent before an election in a year when gay marriage was a campaign issue. The mailers also went out before Colorado lawmakers enacted the Colorado Civil Union Law, which grants same-sex couples the right to enter into a civil union.
The district court determined that the use of the gentlemen’s likeness reasonably related to a matter of legitimate public concern: same-sex marriage. The court’s balancing act weighed heavily in favor of free speech based upon the timeliness of the mailers. In the end, the First Amendment trumped the individual right of publicity.
Let’s revisit the HIV awareness campaign issue. According to the complaint filed on Sept. 18, 2013, in Nolan v. Getty Images (US) Inc., Avril Nolan alleged that a photographer took her picture years ago for an unrelated project. Nolan never signed a release or license with the photographer to use the picture. Subsequently, the photographer licensed the photo to Getty, a worldwide commercial supplier of images. Getty licensed Nolan’s picture to the New York State Division of Human Rights to place in the AIDS awareness “I am positive(+)” campaign.
In the March 6 New York trial court opinion, the court stated that New York does not recognize the common law misappropriation torts of privacy or publicity. Instead, the rights and cause of action are statutory. Under New York Civil Right Law §50, an entity “that uses for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The trial court denied Getty’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action on March 6. The court found Getty’s action—placing Nolan’s image on its website for viewing by potential licensees—met the statutory requirement of “use” within the state.
Questions to Consider
It’s unclear to me how Getty’s alleged actions violate §50. But what if Nolan had sued the New York State Division of Human Rights? In that scenario, the Colorado federal court’s reasoning in Hill might provide insight. Arguably, the HIV awareness campaign communicated a matter of legitimate public concern, so free speech might trump the right of publicity or privacy.
I wonder if, in either case, it would make a difference if the individuals pictured in the likeness allegedly used without authorization had been famous. Would a “commercial nature” begin to arise if it looked as if a famous athlete or actor was opposing gay marriage or supporting HIV awareness? While the tort of misappropriation applies to people who aren’t famous, the scales balancing First Amendment and right of publicity might tip differently if the likeness used is well-known.
These cases should reminder lawyers to think twice—and perhaps a third time—before posting that next selfie. You just don’t know where it might end up.
Tamera H. Bennett is a trademark, copyright and entertainment attorney and mediator practicing law in Texas and Tennessee as president at Bennett Law Office in Lewisville.