Right of publicity case against Shaquille O’Neal over a photo he tweeted and posted to Instagram moves forward

19569476993_1a7bba1a85_o

A federal court has held that a plaintiff has successfully pled a claim of “appropriation” (essentially, right of publicity claim) against former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, for Shaq’s use of plaintiff’s photo on Twitter and Instagram. The case is useful inasmuch as it shows how courts will consider social media as providing a benefit to its user.

Shaq acquired a photo of plaintiff, who suffers from a condition that affects his hair, skin and teeth, then placed a photo of himself making a contorted face next to the photo, apparently to imitate the way plaintiff appeared. Given that Shaq has millions of followers, this garnered many, many likes and comments. (I of course won’t republish the image here, but if you really want to see it, just do a Google Image search using the parties’ last names.)

Plaintiff sued under several theories, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, appropriation, and unjust enrichment. Shaq moved to dismiss most of the claims. The court did throw out some of the claims (e.g., negligence — plaintiff has pled Shaq acted intentionally). On the appropriation claim, the court, applying Michigan law, held that Shaq had made use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit. The court rejected Shaq’s argument that plaintiff lacked any pecuniary interest in his identify, holding that the tort of appropriation under Michigan law “is not limited to commercial appropriation” and “applies also when the defendant makes use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit, even though the use is not a commercial one, and even though the benefit sought to be obtained is not a pecuniary one.”

The court went on to clarify that even if the tort of appropriation under Michigan law did require a plaintiff to demonstrate a significant commercial or pecuniary interest in his identity, plaintiff’s case still survived the motion to dismiss. “[A] plaintiff need not be a national celebrity to demonstrate significant commercial value.”

Binion v. O’Neal, No. NO. 15-60869, 2016 WL 111344 (S.D. Fla., Jan. 11, 2016).

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.