Video game maker scores First Amendment win in right of publicity case

Hart v. Electronic Arts, Inc. — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 4005350 (D.N.J. September 9, 2011)

Former Rutgers quarterback Ryan Hart sued Electronic Arts (“EA”), the maker of the very popular video game NCAA Football, alleging misappropriation of his right of publicity under New Jersey law.

EA moved to dismiss. Treating the filing as one for summary judgment, the court granted the motion. It held that EA’s right to free expression under the First Amendment outweighed Hart’s right of publicity.

The court recognized the tension between Hart’s right of publicity and EA’s free speech interest in seeking to incorporate Hart’s characteristics and other information about him into the game. The resolution of this tension is an unsettled area of the law — and the court no doubt recognized this. So in what appears to be an effort to reduce the likelihood that the appellate court will reverse, the judge applied two different tests, finding that EA’s First Amendment interests prevailed under both of them.

Hart’s claims

Hart claimed that the game misappropriated his right of publicity by, among other things, giving a virtual player of the game Hart’s physical attributes (including appearance, height and weight), the same jersey number, the same home state, and with wearing a helmet visor and left wrist band. Hart claimed the virtual player shared other features with him as well, such as speed and agility rating, and passing accuracy and arm strength.

Transformative test

The court first applied the “transformative test” to balance the right of publicity and First Amendment interests. This test borrows heavily from copyright law’s fair use analysis, and looks to the extra elements in the subsequent work. A court will look at:

whether the celebrity likeness is one of the “raw materials” from which an original work is synthesized, or whether the depiction or imitation of the celebrity is the very sum and substance of the work in question

In this case, the game included numerous creative elements apart from Hart’s image, such as virtual stadiums, athletes, coaches, fans, sound effects, music and commentary. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the court emphasized that EA created a mechanism in the game “by which the virual player may be altered, as well as the multiple permutations available for each virtual player image.”

The Rogers test

The Rogers test borrows from the trademark context to aid a court in determining whether First Amendment interests will trump a right of publicity claim. In applying this test, a court will make two queries: (a) whether the challenged work is wholly unrelated to the underlying work (or person asserting the claim), and (b) whether the use of the plaintiff’s name is a disguised commercial advertisement. In this case, the court found that one could not reasonably argue that Hart’s image was wholly unrelated to the game (it was college football, after all). But the use of Hart’s image was not a “disguised commercial advertisement.” Instead, the use of his image was part of an expressive act by EA that might draw upon public familiarity with Hart’s college football career but did not explicitly state that he endorsed or contributed to the creation of the game.