Do you remember the time Donald Trump played “It’s The End of the World as We Know It” at a campaign rally and REM told him not to use their music "for your moronic charade of a campaign?" Or that time John McCain used “Running on Empty” in a TV ad bashing Obama and Jackson Browne sued him? Or that time Rand Paul used “Tom Sawyer” during his Senate run and Rush said that it was obvious Paul “hates women and brown people?"* It seems like every time there’s an election, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a band upset at a politician for using its music. And with a year left before the general election, it’ll happen a few more times at least.Read More
The past few months have seen a lot of really intriguing legal activity from Swift’s people. First she took her music down from Spotify (by far the most popular streaming music service), meaning the only way to get her new album 1989 is to pay for it directly. A few weeks ago she filed for trademark protection of the phrase “this sick beat” because apparently she thinks there’s a lot of money to be made from it. And just last month she started issuing takedown notices to fans who were selling knock-off Swift merch on Etsy.Read More
A few weeks ago, Marvel had a strategy to punch up ratings on its much-improved, but declining-in-popularity Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC. To drive up viewership, it would unveil the new trailer for Joss Whedon's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the colossal sequel to the already colossal Avengers.Read More
Something really unusual happened last week. Someone on the crew of next summer’s Jurassic Park sequel, Jurassic World (yes, they’re making another one), leaked a major plot spoiler to movie news site Joblo.com.Read More
Katherine Heigl has never been a lovable celebrity. Throughout her career, she's bad-mouthed her projects and coworkers to such a degree that Hollywood and the public have largely turned on her. Some have even dubbed her "Hollywood's Most Hated Actress." Lately, it appears she's taken a page out of Sheryl Sandberg's playbook and is leaning in to that title; last week she sued NY-based drugstore chain Duane Reade for $6 million after they tweeted a picture of her leaving one of their stores after shopping there. If she wins, she plans to donate that money to charity... her own charity.
To be sure, this lawsuit isn't going to win her any fans. But then it's not really designed to; it's designed to protect her publicity rights. And using that as a guidepost, Ms. Heigl may actually have a point. Here's the tweet in question:
Heigl's complaint alleges violations of the Lanham Act (the law governing trademarks) as well as New York Civil Rights Laws Sections 50 and 51 (which govern privacy). I'm not going to address the trademark issue here because she would have to prove that Duane Reade's use of her picture would likely confuse the public into assuming she was affiliated with Duane Reade. I just don't think the facts are compelling enough to make that claim (the average person will not conflate shopping at a store with endorsement of it). As I see it, this case is more likely to turn on the privacy issue anyhow.
Section 50 of the NY Civil Statutes says that:
A person, firm or corporation 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, or if a minor of his or her parent or guardian, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
That kind of says it all, doesn't it? The image of a person (famous or not) cannot be used in advertising without their consent - which Ms. Heigl obviously did not give. In common law, this would be referred to as "appropriation of likeness" which is considered one of four privacy rights. So does the tweet count as advertising? Based on the nature of the tweet and the wording, I think a convincing argument can be made. After all, why would Duane Reade tweet that picture if there wasn't a business motive behind it? It's not like the picture was taken by an awe-struck fan... the picture was taken by a paparazzo which was then used by a corporation whose message on Twitter and Facebook was clearly that "Ms. Heigl is a patron of our stores."
Even still, this infraction seems relatively harmless... certainly not worthy of $6 million of Heigl's wrath. And it does raise some questions about the nature of publicity rights as used by celebrities. On the one hand, social media has made it difficult for people to know where the line is between advertising and simply pointing out "here's a celebrity!" While I think the tweet counts as advertising, I could be convinced otherwise with some clever lawyering. There are also First Amendment questions at stake - can a corporation never tweet a picture of a famous patron? Is such a tweet automatically advertising by its nature? And would banning those types of tweets violate the right to free speech? On the other hand, celebrities rely on their images to get work, and having that image appropriated for a use they never approved could result in a loss of work or even ruin business relationships (e.g. what if Ms. Heigl just worked out a deal to be a spokesperson for CVS? The tweet of her shopping at a competing drugstore could destroy that deal).
I know, I know. It's hard to care about how Duane Reade's tweet may negatively impact Ms. Heigl. That's the level of damage she's done to her personal brand. And this lawsuit, however justified, doesn't do anything to help her image. For her sake, I hope she realizes that legal protection of a brand is not the same thing as public protection. The former is fine, but if she wants to continue acting, it will be crucial for her to work on the latter.