Publication of photo on website not a “continuing violation” in right of publicity case

This post is by Greg Smith, a contributor to Internet Cases. [Bio]

In Blair v. Nevada Landing Partnership, a casino worker sued his former employer, claiming that the casino used a photograph of him in various marketing materials and later, without authorization, on the casino’s website. Although the plaintiff consented to the photograph when it was taken, he complained about its use after he quit his job.

The plaintiff claimed that the casino misappropriated his likeness, and filed an action in Illinois state court, alleging violations of the state’s Right of Publicity Act. The trial court dismissed the action as time-barred, and the plaintiff sought review. The Appellate Court affirmed.

The court began by analyzing when the limitations began to run. Said another way, it looked to determine when the cause of action “accrued.” The photograph was taken in 1994, and about six months later, it appeared on various flyers and brochures, signs and billboards, casino restaurant menus, and calendars and postcards for sale in the casino gift shop. Some time later, the photo appeared on the casino’s website. The plaintiff did not file suit until September 2004.

The court noted that in tort cases, the limitations period begins to run when the plaintiff can first file the lawsuit. Conduct of a defendant falling under the “continuing violation” exception, however, can toll (i.e., delay) the time when the limitations period begins. If there is a continuing violation, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the tortious acts cease. But the continuing violation exception does not apply if the alleged conduct stems from a “single overt act.” In such cases, the statute begins to run on the date of the single act.

The court declined to apply to continuing violation exception:

We do not believe that the defendants’ act of publishing the plaintiff’s picture in various mediums around the casino falls under the continuing violation exception. Rather, we believe that the use of the plaintiff’s picture in different means such as on the billboard in the casino pavilion, in the casino’s restaurant menu, and on the defendants’ website, constituted a single overt act.

The court cautioned that application of this so-called “first publication rule” is not without its limitations. “[A] republication of the plaintiff’s likeness can constitute a new cause of action if the publication is altered so as to reach a new audience or promote a different product.” Lehman v. Discovery Communications, Inc., 332 F.Supp.2d 534, 539 (E.D.N.Y.2004).

But in this case, even though the casino used the plaintiff’s photograph in different formats over time, it committed only a single overt act for statute of limitations purposes. The uses were all made with the same goal, namely, to attract customers to the casino. Accordingly, a suit filed nearly a decade after the photo was first used was clearly time-barred.

Blair v. Nevada Landing Partnership, — N.E.2d —-, 2006 WL 3594284 (Ill. App. 2 Dist., December 8, 2006)