Seventh Circuit tosses right of publicity case against Joan Rivers

Bogie v. Rosenberg, — F.3d —, 2013 WL 174113 (7th Cir. 2013)

The Seventh Circuit has held it was not an invasion of privacy, nor a misappropriation of plaintiff’s right of publicity, to include a video clip of a 16-second conversation between plaintiff and comedian Joan Rivers filmed backstage. These claims failed under Wisconsin law.

Someone filmed plaintiff having a conversation with Joan Rivers about the comments a heckler made in the just-concluded show. The producers of a documentary about Rivers included the clip in their work. The clip comprised 0.3 percent of the entire work.

Plaintiff sued, alleging claims under Wisconsin law for invasion of privacy and misappropriation of her right of publicity. The district court dismissed her claims for failure to state a claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The privacy claim failed because, as the court found, plaintiff enjoyed no reasonable expectation of privacy in the backstage context where the conversation took place. There were several people around, and the “din of chatter” could be heard in the background. The court also found that the inclusion of the video would not be offensive to a reasonable person. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that her embarrassment over the contents of her communications contributed to a finding of offensiveness — quoting from a popular treatise, the court noted that the law “does not protect one from being associated with highly offensive material, but rather from a highly offensive intrusion on privacy.”

The court held there was no misappropriation of plaintiff’s right to publicity, finding the inclusion of the video subject to the “public interest” exception to the Wisconsin statute. The film’s objectives were broader than just showcasing Rivers — it was to portray generally America’s interest in comedy and show business. The court also found the clip to be subject to the “incidental use” exception — it was but a tiny portion of the overall work.

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.