Many people would enjoy seeing their face plastered on a billboard. Not Woody Allen.
On March 1, the filmmaker filed a $10 million lawsuit against the clothing company American Apparel Inc (APP) whose recent advertising campaign featured an unauthorized shot of Allen dressed as a rabbi from the movie Annie Hall. Lucky for him, Allen is protected by his right to publicity and will likely have a good case against AAI, says Joe Dreitler, a trademark attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “People have a right to control the commercial use of their name and likeness. It’s not fair to take advantage of someone’s reputation to make a buck.”
Of course splashing a celebrity on a poster, even for a school bake sale (Britney Butter Cookies, anyone?), is a great way to get attention. Are the rules the same for a small town PTA, as they are for a big company? They are. If a person is at all recognizable, permission is needed to use that image, or likeness in any form, for commercial use. “If you use someone’s image and don't get their consent, it is a recipe to get yourself sued,” says Dreitler.
Even not-for-profit causes should be wary. For instance, a website associated with Connie Loughman, a private citizen who suffers from pancreatic cancer, was recently called out for posting the name and image of Patrick Swayze. The site, advocates finding a cure for pancreatic cancer, specifically by encouraging executives at GenVec (GNVC) to allow people suffering from pancreatic cancer access to new treatments that they are developing.
But, in a statement to Defamer.com, Swayze's publicist, Annett Wolf, said "Patrick is not aware of this website, and he has no association with it or the medication it advertises. He is not affiliated with the woman from the site; Patrick had no knowledge of her." It is unknown whether Swayze will file a lawsuit, but Mark Roesler, CEO and Chairman of CMG Worldwide, an intellectual property rights management firm, says the Dirty Dancing star would have a case. “A person’s right to publicity covers any commercial use that is not subject to first amendment rights, whether or not it is for a non-profit company.”
And that right to publicity includes more than images. According to Michael Atkins, an attorney in Seattle, Wash., the law also protects the un-consented use of someone’s name, voice, signature, and likeness and, it doesn’t only protect celebrities. “Celebrities usually deal with these issues the most because their images are everywhere but the law protects all people.” (And you thought you had nothing in common with Woody Allen.)