Protecting The Brand: Katherine Heigl Sues Duane Reade To Protect Her Publicity Rights

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 Tweet

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.