Ninth Circuit Provides Important Protection To Bloggers

In an important victory for free speech advocates, the Ninth Circuit has joined other courts in establishing that authors protected by the First Amendment need not be journalists to have such robust protections.

In Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, — F.3d —- (2014) (filed Jan. 17th, 2014), the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court decision that limited certain First Amendment protections to institutional journalists. The Court explained that “protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story.”

In aligning the Ninth Circuit with other circuits which have addressed the issue, the court reaffirms that negligence is the minimum legal standard for any case involving matters of public interest (and possibly all cases). To receive general damages without suffering specific harm and to receive punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant published the statements with actual malice, meaning intentional knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court established the modern First Amendment framework. Public officials must prove actual malice to prove liability. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, (1967), then extended this standard to public figures. A decade later, in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment required a negligence standard for private defamation actions. Significantly less than the actual malice standard, it nonetheless established that there could not be liability without fault.

In Obsidian Financial Group, the Ninth Circuit does not suggest the defendant is blameless:

Crystal Cox published blog posts on several websites that she created, accusing Padrick and Obsidian of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and other illegal activities in connection with the Summit bankruptcy. Cox apparently has a history of making similar allegations and seeking payoffs in exchange for retraction. See David Carr, When Truth Survives Free Speech, N.Y. Times, Dec. 11, 2011, at B1. Padrick and Obsidian sent Cox a cease-and-desist letter, but she continued posting allegations.

The accusations and statements, however, were difficult to view as factual assertions. Where there were assertions of fact, the court explains, the plaintiff must establish the negligence of the statements.

The Ninth Circuit also sidestepped the issue whether the Gertz negligence standard applies to matters of purely private concern. It noted the unresolved question, when it stated that “the Supreme Court has ‘never considered whether the Gertz balance obtains when the defamatory statements involve no issue of public concern.’” (quoting Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749, 757 (1985) (plurality opinion)).

Instead, the Ninth Circuit noted that the blog was made available to the public at large, just as every blog does. Moreover, the court noted that “public allegations that someone is involved in crime generally are speech on a matter of public concern.” So instead of answering whether the negligence standard applies to private matters, the court expanded the realm of public discourse to almost any public accusation.

This strategy has the effect of expanding the negligence standard to almost any claim. It may leave certain personal matters personal, though this is unclear. It could also leave certain formats, such as personal emails, texts, and friends’ lists as matters of purely private concern, but undoubtedly many of allegedly defamatory posts on such platforms will also be matters of public concern.

The distinction between matters of public concern and purely private matters has less and less meaning, and the distinction is likely to continue to erode in the context of defamation, though perhaps remain relevant in some issues involving privacy.

Nonetheless, the case is an important victory for free speech interests. Of course, this does not mean anything can be published with impunity. Negligence is not a terribly difficult test to meet and those plaintiffs who have truly been harmed will still have their day in court. It is difficult to be the subject of online attacks, but the rules of law should apply equally to all speakers, journalists, bloggers, and citizens alike. In the Ninth Circuit, it now does.

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Nurturing culture to build economies and communities

A newly released briefing by Professor Ann Markusen of the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs highlights the importance and influence of a creative arts community serves as a tool to develop a region’s broader economic growth.

The paper published by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation highlights the opportunities created by encouraging a creative arts economy to help develop a more robust economic environment. Among the key findings of the report:

City appreciation for cultural entrepreneurship has grown following economists’ and city planners’ documentations of the roles that artists play in the local economy. Many artists and designers contribute to the city’s economic base, bringing in income from elsewhere by exporting their creations—books, recordings, visual art—and by travelling to perform elsewhere. Pools of artists attract and anchor cultural industry firms in fields like publishing, advertising, music, design, and architecture. Artists often work on contract in other industries to design and market products and services (visual artists, musicians, and writers) and improve employee relations (actors). …

Despite heightened interest in fostering artists/designers as innovators and entrepreneurs, most cities have found that traditional policies and services don’t work for artists. … Artists are many times more likely to be self-employed than are scientists and engineers. Some 48 percent of artists reported in the 2000 Census long form that they are self-employed. … Overwhelmingly, surveys of artists underscore that they need and want to develop business skills. Many organizations—some nonprofit, some linked to higher educational institutions, some for-profit—offer artist-tailored entrepreneurial training.

The work by Professor Markusen reinforces many of the themes discussed in the recent  NKU Chase Law + Informatics Institute program: Success Strategies for the Professional Artist in the Digital Age. That program helped artists and their attorneys learn to navigate self-promotion, online contracting, sophisticated financing, and a host of challenges that pull the artist away from the creative process and into the fast-paced world of digital commerce. A webcast is available of the program.

Group shot of panelists at Success Strategies for the Professional Artist in the Digital Age event

“With social media gaining in popularity, more people are becoming content creators, and there is great opportunity to share creative works, but many are now becoming aware that there is real value to maintain some control over what is shared,” commented Terry Hart, director of legal policy, Copyright Alliance.

“Artists have long been recognized as commodities in our communities, driving innovation and adding color to our environment,” shared Sarah Corlett, director of creative enterprise, ArtsWave SpringBoard. “It has become increasingly more important that our creative sector has opportunities to turn their passion into profit through education and training. This improves the likelihood that these individuals will stay in our region and continue to make this an even better place to live.”

Professor Markusen, building on her earlier scholarship concludes in the report that for cities, “economic development strategy/practice is increasingly turning to occupational approaches, asserting the significance of human capital and entrepreneurship in supplementing traditional industry-targeted programs.”

But the creative artist panelist had some words of caution.  Dayton School of Law professor Dennis Greene reminded audience members that “the devil is in the details.”  Jennifer Kreder noted “when art is created in more traditional visual medium and then digitized several issues will come up” to which Stephen Gillen explained that “there is no ‘one size fits all answer'” for how best to contract for rights.

The Kauffman Foundation report provides a strong reminder of what cities can do to improve the likely success of artists and entrepreneurs in their communities. These are partnerships well worth promoting.

Success Strategies for the Professional Artist in the Digital Age was presented by the NKU Chase Law + Informatics Institute and sponsored by the ABA Business Section Cyberspace Law Committee, Copyright AllianceArtWorks SpringBoardKentucky Arts Council, and Frost Brown Todd, this program featured expert attorneys and filmmakers who discussed a range of business and legal practices.

 Frost Brown Todd

ABA Cyberspace Law Committee
Springboard
KAC
Copyright Alliance

Social Media in the workplace – wide-ranging overview now available

In a recent blog post regarding Sam Moore‘s claim for publicity rights in a fictional film, I provided a general update on publicity rights law because such laws are now being used as part of the social media agreement between the public and such companies as Google and Facebook.

The discussion about continuing evolution of publicity rights doctrine is part of a larger review I have written on the role of social media across the spectrum of media law.  That working paper, Social Media in the Workplace – From Constitutional to Intellectual Property Rights is now available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2348779 or for download.

Social media has become a dominant force in the landscape of modern communications. From political uprisings in the Middle East to labor disputes in Washington State, social media has fundamentally disrupted the way in which communications take place. As noted constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky explained, “technology has changed and so has First Amendment doctrine and American culture. It now is much more clearly established that there is a strong presumption against government regulation of speech based on its content.” Just as the government must tolerate more speech, the same thing is true about employers. Chemerinsky further notes that “for better or worse, profanities are more a part of everyday discourse.” Abrasive speech may be coarse from the word choice or may more readily upbraid the objects of the speech. Whether foul or abusive, such speech now pervades commercial and social media.

Social media fundamentally upends the notion of the traditional commercial media environment and with that, it reverses the established legal doctrine from constitutional assumptions to everyday rules involving copyright, defamation, and unfair labor practice. For employers, these rules are particularly important to navigate because they effect the manner in which the companies communicate with the public, how employees communicate with each other, and how laws are restructuring the employee-employer relationship. The transformation is taking place with changing policies affecting trade secrets, confidential information, copyrighted material, aggregated data, trademarks, publicity rights, and endorsements.

This article highlights the nature of the changes as they present the new paradigm shift and provides some guidance on how to prepare policies for the transitional model. The article tracks the rise of the many-to-many model of social media, its effect on commercial speech, intellectual property, and labor law. The article concludes with suggestions on employment policies geared to managing these changes in the modern workplace.

There will be a CLE program sponsored by the Dayton Intellectual Property Law Association on Friday November 8, 2013 featuring these materials.

Sam Moore loses publicity rights dispute with The Weinstein Company while the use of the Transformative Use Test is applied again

Publicity Rights continue to vex courts and counsel. An October 31st decision of the Sixth Circuit in Moore v. Weinstein provides yet another unfortunate twist to the judicial approach to balancing publicity rights with free speech rights.

The litigation stems from the 2008 film Soul Men produced by The Weinstein Company starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. Grammy winning artist, Sam Moore claimed the movie was an unauthorized life story because of the title, story-line, and music used in the film. Having lost on appeal, Moore took his fight to the Sixth Circuit where the court again sided with The Weinstein Company.

The problem with the decision is not the outcome. Instead the concern is that the court interpreted a state law which relied on the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition to determine the scope of publicity rights but still insisted on adding an additional opportunity for plaintiffs to stop communicative works if the defendants could not prove the works were transformative.

State law protection of publicity rights are constrained by free speech concerns.[1] Publicity rights are protected as a common law extension of privacy,[2] but like other common law doctrine affecting speech, many aspects have been constitutionalized.[3] Publicity rights are properly considered a form of limitation on commercial speech and should be subject to legitimate content regulation as is allowed by the FCC and FTC, namely intermediate scrutiny.[4] Traditional publicity rights doctrine first asks whether the use of the name or likeness involves a commercial transaction.[5] The commercial transaction may be the sale of a commercial item or an endorsement of a good or service.[6] If the use of the publicity rights constitutes an endorsement, then the FTC endorsement guidelines offer further liability for unauthorized use.

In theory, formulations such as that embodied in the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition should provide clear breathing room between expressive works and their commercial cousins. As the Sixth Circuit recently stated, “A viable right-of-publicity claim usually requires (1) defendant’s use of plaintiff’s identity; (2) the appropriation of plaintiff’s name or likeness to the defendant’s advantage, commercially or otherwise; (3) lack of consent; and (4) resulting injury.”[7]

Section 47 of the Restatement sets an explicit limit on the scope of publicity rights:

The name, likeness, and other indicia of a person’s identity are used “for purposes of trade” under the rule stated in § 46 if they are used in advertising the user’s goods or services, or are placed on merchandise marketed by the user, or are used in connection with services rendered by the user. However, use “for purposes of trade” does not ordinarily include the use of a person’s identity in news reporting, commentary, entertainment, works of fiction or nonfiction, or in advertising that is incidental to such uses.[8]

The scope of publicity rights explicitly excludes news, entertainment, and creative works.[9] The limitation embodied in the Restatement is written to be categorical, which provides for greater certainty and reinforces the importance of free speech rights and avoidance of a chilling effect caused by fear of litigation involving a person’s identity in a communicative work. Comment d. to the Restatement recognizes this concern by stating “[b]roader restrictions on the use of another’s identity in entertainment, news, or other creative works threaten significant public and constitutional interests.”[10]

Nonetheless, in practice, publicity rights are tested under a variety of inconsistent court-fashioned doctrine which do not balance commercial and speech interest nearly as cleanly as does the Restatement. “Various commentators have noted that right of publicity claims—at least those that address the use of a person’s name or image in an advertisement—are akin to trademark claims because in both instances courts must balance the interests in protecting the relevant property right against the interest in free expression.”[11]

The Rogers test[12] most squarely distinguishes between commercial works and communicative works. Under that test, a court should not “permit the right of publicity to bar the use of a celebrity’s name in a movie title unless the title was ‘wholly unrelated’ to the movie or was ‘simply a disguised commercial advertisement for the sale of goods or services.’”[13] This test most closely mirrors the FTC commercial endorsement guidelines, particularly if the recognition of disguised commercial advertisements extends to the various undisclosed endorsements.

The Predominant Use test loosely balances the free speech rights of the publisher against the economic goals of that publisher.[14] Works that predominantly exploit the commercial value of identity must certainly include all celebrity magazines, ESPN, and the Sunday section of the New York Times. The fact that a work is published under a profit motive does not transform the content into commercial speech.[15] The Predominant Use Test is ineffectively under-inclusive and over-inclusive, making it unhelpful for jurisprudential guidance.[16]

The third common test flows from copyright law rather than trademark law. Based upon the Supreme Court jurisprudence involving fair use, the California Supreme Court adopted the transformative test from the first factor of copyright fair use to determine the right of publicity free speech doctrine.

According to the Supreme Court as applied by the California Supreme Court,

the central purpose of the inquiry into this fair use factor ‘is to see … whether the new work merely “supercede[s] the objects” of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”[17]

To the first factor of the copyright test embodied in Transformative Test, the California Supreme Court obliquely reintroduced the copyright fair use test’s fourth factor: the effect on the potential market for the work.[18]

Virtual worlds and video games may trigger the most direct conflict between publicity rights and free speech jurisprudence.[19] The communicative nature of video games highlighted in Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n should require the medium be treated like any other.[20] Nonetheless, both video game manufacturers and the courts tend to continue to treat these works as if they are commercial products rather than works of expression protected by the First Amendment.[21] As products, they are commercial works subject to the Transformative Test or another of the balancing tests rather than excluded from the limitation in publicity rights that such rights only apply to commercial products or the advertisements for such goods and services.

The communication in a video game generally is not a proposal of a commercial transaction or the sale of a product, so rights of publicity simply do not apply.[22] If instead, the media is used to make an endorsement or advertise a commercial product, then the FTC endorsement guidelines and the state publicity rights come back into play.[23]

This distinction should guide the behavior and social media policies of employers. To the extent they are creating content as media broadcasters, there are no publicity rights constraints and no endorsement concerns.[24] If instead the content is designed to promote commercial transactions, serve as advertisements, or sell merchandise, then permission is required from the endorser and the endorser must be providing factual, honest information.

The confusion surrounding publicity rights raises serious chilling effects. As reported in the Hollywood Reporter, the NCAA is trying to take up an appeal in Keller v. EA Sports despite the settlement in the case following a ruling unfavorable to EA based on an application of the Transformative Use Test. The NCAA petition for cert (read here) provided:

[T]he interplay between right-of-publicity claims and the First Amendment is an issue on which the lower courts are badly divided. It is also important, affecting the fundamental rights of a wide array of speakers—from movie and television producers (e.g., The Social Network) to biographers and songwriters (Bob Dylan’s Hurricane), to videogame makers, like one of the defendants here.

Something must be done to restore to return the presumption of free speech and eliminate the chilling effect of publicity rights claims against communicative works. Publicity rights are very important economic and personal rights which should be enforced against commercial theft of identity, but that does not mean they should be used to stifle the ability of other authors and artists. A Supreme Court decision in Keller will be unlikely to develop the balance needed to restore the law. Instead federal legislation is a more likely tool to get the balance correct.


[1] See, e.g., Donahue v. Warner Bros. Pictures Distributing Corp., 272 P.2d 177 (Utah 1954) (publicity rights statute limited to the use of name or likeness in advertising, or the sale of “some collateral commodity.”); Cal. Civ. Code § 3344(a) (West 1997) (limiting protection to use “on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent.”).

[2] See Samuel Warren & Louis Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). See also William L. Prosser, Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383, 383–85 (1960).

[3] Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., 433 U.S. 562, 577 (1977) (In distinguishing between defamation, false light and publicity cases, the Court explained that the “Constitution does not prevent Ohio from … deciding to protect the entertainer’s incentive” to perform.)

[4] See Sorrell, 131 S. Ct. 2653, supra note 53 at 2663; Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 562 (1980); Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U.S. 447 (1978) (upholding state lawyer advertising regulation); Virginia State Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 771-772 (1976) (establishing First Amendment protection for commercial speech and recognizing right of recipients of commercial speech to have access to the content).

[5] See, e.g., Comedy III Productions, Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 21 P.3d 797, 802 (Cal. 2001).

[6] Id. at 802 (although the speech was not an “advertisement, endorsement, or sponsorship of any product,” defendant nonetheless “used the likeness of The Three Stooges on . . . products, merchandise, or goods within the meaning of the statute.”).

[7] Moore v. Weinstein Co. LLC, 12-5715, (6th Cir. Oct. 31, 2013) (unreported) quoting Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition.

[8] Restatement (Third) Unfair Competition §47 (1995).

[9]  Id.  at cmt. c. (“the use of a person’s name or likeness in news reporting, whether in newspapers, magazines, or broadcast news, does not infringe the right of publicity. The interest in freedom of expression also extends to use in entertainment and other creative works, including both fiction and nonfiction.”).

[10] Id. at cmt. d.

[11] Hart v. Elec. Arts, Inc., 717 F.3d 141, 155 (3d Cir. 2013).

[12] Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir.1989).

[13] Id.  at 1004.

[14] Doe v. TCI Cablevision, 110 S.W.3d 363 (Mo.2003) (en banc).

If a product is being sold that predominantly exploits the commercial value of an individual’s identity, that product should be held to violate the right of publicity and not be protected by the First Amendment, even if there is some “expressive” content in it that might qualify as “speech” in other circumstances. If, on the other hand, the predominant purpose of the product is to make an expressive comment on or about a celebrity, the expressive values could be given greater weight.

Id.  at 374.

[15] See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 265 (1964). See also Valentine v. Chrestensen, 316 U.S. 52, 55 (1942) (commercial speech cannot evade regulation by appending protected first amendment content).

[16] See Hart, supra note 73 at 154 (“By our reading, the Predominant Use Test is subjective at best, arbitrary at worst, and in either case calls upon judges to act as both impartial jurists and discerning art critics.”).

[17] Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 25 Cal.4th 387, 404 (2001) (quoting Campbell v. Acuff–Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994) (citations omitted).

[18] Id.  at 407.

Furthermore, in determining whether a work is sufficiently transformative, courts may find useful a subsidiary inquiry, particularly in close cases: does the marketability and economic value of the challenged work derive primarily from the fame of the celebrity depicted? If this question is answered in the negative, then there would generally be no actionable right of publicity. When the value of the work comes principally from some source other than the fame of the celebrity—from the creativity, skill, and reputation of the artist—it may be presumed that sufficient transformative elements are present to warrant First Amendment protection. If the question is answered in the affirmative, however, it does not necessarily follow that the work is without First Amendment protection—it may still be a transformative work.

[19] See Hart, supra note 73 at 152-53; O’Bannon v. NCAA, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19170 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2010) (dismissing Keller v. Elec. Arts, Inc., 2010 WL 530108 (N.D. Cal. 2010) to substitute anti-trust claims for publicity rights claims); In re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litig., 2011-2 Trade Cas. (CCH) ¶ 77, 549 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (ongoing litigation emphasizing anti-trust implication of refusing to negotiate rights with former NCAA players).

[20] Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, supra note 37 at 2737 n.4.

[21] See Hart, supra note 71 at 148-49 (“Appellee [EA Sports] concedes, for purposes of the motion and appeal, that it violated Appellant’s right of publicity; in essence, misappropriating his identity for commercial exploitation.”)

[22] Cf. Comedy III, supra note 71 at 802; Hart, supra note 75 at 149.

[23] Garon, supra note 52 at 615, 624.

[24] See Facenda v. N.F.L. Films, Inc., 542 F.3d 1007, 1017 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting U.S. Healthcare, Inc. v. Blue Cross of Greater Phila., 898 F.2d 914, 933 (3d Cir. 1990)).

The Estate contends that the program is commercial speech, and we agree. Our Court has “three factors to consider in deciding whether speech is commercial: (1) is the speech an advertisement; (2) does the speech refer to a specific product or service; and (3) does the speaker have an economic motivation for the speech.”

Guest Repost: 4th Cir: Liking on Facebook is Protected First Amendment Activity

As a follow-up on a topic covered at the 2013 Law + Informatics Symposium, Workplace Prof Blog, A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network posted the following article. Given its relation to our symposium, the author kindly agreed to let us re-post it here:

ComputerSome of you may recall that we previously blogged on a case from Virginia in August of last year concerning whether, in a public sector First Amendment  case involving political activities, liking someone or something on Facebook counted as protected First Amendment speech.  I said it most certainly did in the ABA Journal at the time, even though the district judge said it certainly did not.

Secunda [The earlier post explained that the ABA Journal quoted “Paul Secunda (Marquette) as “speechless” that Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled, in Bland v. Robertsy, that a public employee “liking” something or someone on Facebook is not protected First Amendment expression.  The article is ‘Like’ Is Unliked: Clicking on a Facebook Item Is Not Free Speech, Judge Rules.”  Ed.]

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit made the world right again by finding that liking a candidate’s campaign page on Facebook was in fact protected First Amendment speech.

Here is the link to the 4th Circuit’s decision (2-1) in Bland v. RobertsAnd here is the pertinent language from the Court’s opinion:

On the most basic level, clicking on the “like” button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.

Friend of the blog, Bill Herbert, has written on these First Amendment issues involving social networking by public employees in: Can’t Escape from the Memory:  Social Media and Public Sector Labor Law.  The article has now been published in North Kentucky Law Review as part of the  Law + Informatics Symposium on Labor and Employment Issues.  A shout out to Jon Garon, Director of the Law + Informatics Institute at NKU for organizing this very worthwhile event.

PS

When are video games unlike movies – when publicity rights are at stake

In a 2-1 vote, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court ruling in favor of EA Sports, finding that the publicity rights of Former Rutgers football player, Ryan Hart, were violated by depicting Hart in the videogame NCAA Football in 2004-06. The decision is a step forward for collegiate players seeking compensation from the exploitation by the NCAA and its licensing partners. The suit highlights the inability for players to receive compensation even after they have left college and NCAA eligibility rules no longer bar them from receiving payment.

The decision is step backwards for free speech advocates who seek clearer and more consistent protection from claims of publicity rights when celebrities and athletes are depicted in communicative works like films and video games. While the decision provides a thoughtful roadmap through the various legal tests applied to publicity rights, the court’s application of New Jersey law is at odds with the same test’s application in California. This will likely lead to increased confusion and more rounds of litigation until new statutes are enacted or cases decided.

The decision focuses on the exactitude of the video game in reproducing the player but unfortunately pays less attention to the exactitude of the Supreme Court/s recent decision in Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, 131 S. Ct. 2729 (2011). The Third Circuit quoted Brown on the protection afforded video games under the First Amendment. “[V]ideo games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).”

Although the court recognizes that “video games enjoy the full force of First Amendment protections,” it highlights the limits of those rights. “As with other types of expressive conduct,” the court explains, “the protection afforded to games can be limited in situations where the right of free expression necessarily conflicts with other protected rights.”

Seeking to apply the best balancing test between the First Amendment and state publicity rights, the court reviews and rejects both the “Predominant Use Test” and the “Rogers Test.” Under the Predominant Use Test, the Missouri Supreme Court held that “[i]f a product is being sold that predominantly exploits the commercial value of an individual’s identity, that product should be held to violate the right of publicity and not be protected by the First Amendment,   even   if   there   is   some ‘expressive’ content in it that might qualify as ‘speech’ in other circumstances.” Unfortunately the Missouri Supreme Court then treated a comic book as such a commercial product and found the use Tony Twist’s likeness a commercial misappropriation when transformed into the evil Anthony “Tony Twist” Twistelli. The Third Circuit correctly rejected this application of such a test.

By our reading, the Predominant Use Test is subjective at best, arbitrary at worst, and in either case calls upon judges to act as both impartial jurists and discerning art critics. These two roles cannot co-exist.

The Third Circuit similarly rejected the Rogers Test, which relies on trademark considerations.

In analyzing the right of publicity claim under Oregon law, the Second Circuit noted Oregon’s “concern for the protection of free expression,” and held that Oregon would not “permit the right of publicity to bar the use of a celebrity’s name in a movie title unless the title was wholly unrelated to the movie or was simply a disguised commercial advertisement for the sale of goods or services.”

The application of the Rogers test to the content of a work almost leads to a finding of free speech, although the content would violate the test where the content was really an advertisement. For example, where the paid ad were an advertorial, a newspaper column of paid content, or in the case of a TV episode which was little more than an infomercial for a forthcoming product. In these cases the content was also a disguised commercial advertisement for sale of goods or services. Unless the content were an advertisement, the Rogers Test would permit the publisher to succeed over the publicity rights.

The Third Circuit adopted the Transformative Use Test developed in California, which is based upon the Copyright Act’s fair use standard. Specifically, that court, in Comedy III Prods., Inc. v.  Gary Saderup, Inc., 21 P.3d 797, 804-08 (Cal. 2001), adopted the first fair use factor, “the purpose and character of the use,” as the sole determinant test to balance the publicity rights claims and free speech claims. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994)), the Supreme Court explained the meaning of this fair use factor:

whether the new work merely “supercede[s] the objects” of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”

The Transformative Use Test has been applied inconsistently in California:

  • Tee-shirts depicting The Three Stooges to be insufficiently transformative to protect the free speech rights of the artist.
  • Comic books depicting Johnny and Edgar Winter as “villainous half-man, half-worm creatures, both with long white hair and albino features” sufficiently transformative to be free speech.
  • Video game depicting musician Kierin Kirby sufficiently transformative to protect Sega’s free speech rights to incorporate her image in a video game.
  • Avatars depicting No Doubt in video game Band Hero were life-like depictions and therefore violation of contractual limitation on publicity rights was a violation of those rights.

The Third Circuit applied this transformative test and in a 2-1 decision found that the literal depiction of Hart’s avatar was insufficiently transformative to protect the free speech rights of the video game makers. The dissent emphasized the video game’s creative and transformative elements as a whole rather than the particular depiction in isolation.

Unfortunately both the majority and dissent ignored this highly inconsistent and arbitrary nature of the Transformative Use Test. Like the Predominant Use Test rejected by the court, the application of the Transformative Use Test remains a rather arbitrary rule. Since both the Hart decision and the Kierin Kirby decision were summary judgment decisions, the courts were basing their decisions on stipulations that the individuals were depicted in the games.

More troubling, if the First Amendment decision of Brown is to be given full effect, then this analysis should apply to television coverage of sports as well. If Hart’s image is exploited in a video game, is it not also exploited when broadcast? The NCAA cannot make any claim to the publicity rights of its former players or players who are no longer eligible under its rules. (Whether the nation’s colleges should be able to strip undergraduates of their privacy and publicity rights as a condition of college eligibility is a broader question best left to a different analysis.) I cannot distinguish between’ Hart’s avatar and a Tina Fey sketch on Saturday Night Live depicting Sarah Palin. Frankly, judges should be empowered to make that distinction either.

I have advocated for a different outcome,[1] based more closely on the Rogers Test of the Second Circuit that emphasizes that publicity rights only exist when the name or likeness is used for a commercial transaction. As such newspapers, news broadcasts, comic books and video games are immune from publicity rights claims unless they are used to promote a commercial transaction, in other words, they are a disguised advertisement for sale of a good or product.

In addition, a second category of commercial appropriation similarly exists when substantially then entire person’s act is exploited. Thus if a news station were to broadcast all of a concert under the guise of covering that concert, it would steal the commercial exploitation of the work itself. That approach accommodates the Supreme Court decision in Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broad. Co., 433 U.S. 562 (1977). In Zacchini, the entire act of the Human Cannonball was broadcast on the news and Zacchini sued for damages as a result. The Supreme Court explained that free speech rights must provide balance with state publicity rights, agreeing that a cause of action for Zacchini’s right of publicity was appropriate under Ohio law.

When a publisher of communicative content takes a substantial portion of the commercial work, then a fair use style balancing is essential to be sure that the communicative work has not usurped the marketplace of the commercial work. Such a test will protect the magicians, comedians, musicians, poets, and trapeze artists of the world. Depicting an athlete in a video game or in a fantasy sports league hardly usurps the athlete’s entire performance; it remains communicative rather than a product or service. It should not matter whether the depiction is accurate or transformed, for that decision is precisely an aesthetic decision inappropriate for determination by judges and courts.

The Hart decision may increase the importance of the Transformative Use Test outside of California, but it does not provide a more thoughtful or more predictable distinction between free speech and publicity rights. The time for a uniform state statute is finally at hand.


[1] Garon, Jon M., Beyond the First Amendment: Shaping the Contours of Commercial Speech in Video Games, Virtual Worlds and Social Media (November 20, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1962369 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1962369;

Garon, Jon M., Playing in the Virtual Arena: Avatars, Publicity and Identity Reconceptualized through Virtual Worlds and Computer Games (March 26, 2008). Chapman Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1334950 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1334950.

One year later – DRM-free ebooks hugely positive for Tor

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue discussed the decision last year by Tor Books UK and US to drop copy protection. It just released a statement regarding the effect of the DRM-free ebooks after one year.

His column deftly discusses the tension between consumers who want the inconvenience of encryption eliminated and concerns that DRM targets lawful consumers far more than those acquiring illegally distributed copies. Although he does not address the plethora of DRM-free versions on bit torrent sites, he notes that the changes to DRM for commercial products might affect the rate of piracy, but not the existence of piracy.

The Tor announcement highlighted a few other features of their strategy. First, the strategy was about their authors and the goals of the authors to engage more effectively with their readers. Secondly, as a science fiction imprint, their readership is among the most capable of getting DRM-free copies, so the publisher needs to make the consumer happy more than it needs to protect itself from the consumer. And finally, the decision to eliminate DRM does not mean that the works are not for-profit, on-sale copies. This statement captures many of Tor’s concerns:

We had discussions with our authors before we made the move and we considered very carefully the two key concerns for any publisher when stripping out the DRM from ebooks: copyright protection and territoriality of sales. Protecting our author’s intellectual copyright will always be of a key concern to us and we have very stringent anti-piracy controls in place. But DRM-protected titles are still subject to piracy, and we believe a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as publishers are, understanding that piracy impacts on an author’s ability to earn an income from their creative work. As it is, we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year.

Pogue suggests but does not state outright that DRM is an ineffective strategy for reducing piracy. But he is very explicit that the point of an anti-piracy policy is to increase sales and revenue. DRM-free does not mean without cost. iTunes sells its music even though it dropped DRM. He also points out that his own books have had fared similarly in the market.

If book consumers thought that everyone in the household could easily read the same book (in the manner that a family can share a physical book), it might be more willing to spend money to own the ebook. For works that have no physical cost, the increase in unauthorized copies is not the right metric. The right question is whether more customers will purchase the work. If more copies are sold, the work is more successful, even if more copies are also pirated.

Pogue makes another strong point that the ease of the transaction directly impacts sales. “Friction also matters. That’s why Apple and Amazon have had such success with the single click-to-buy button. To avoid piracy, it’s not enough to offer people a good product at a fair price. You also have to make buying as effortless as possible.” High transaction costs are reasonable only for expensive, infrequent purchases. Weight is a normal force on friction; only weighty purchases should have high friction.

Finally, Pogue addresses the pricing of ebooks. Frankly, he is more generous to the publishers than I would be on this issue by acknowledging the costs associated with “author advance, editing, indexing, design, promotion, and so on” but like the music industry, the investments are declining. The public is likely to value the fair price point of an ebook as a percentage of its physical counterpart. If the physical copy has a secondary market in the used bookstore, then the loss of resale also needs to be factored in for the consumer. Otherwise the consumer is only paying for the convenience of instant access, and if the instant access is undermined by cludgy DRM, there is no value to be had.

Tor heard this from its constituents:

But the most heartening reaction for us was from the readers and authors who were thrilled that we’d listened and actually done something about a key issue that was so close to their hearts. They almost broke Twitter and facebook with their enthusiastic responses. Gary Gibson, author of The Thousand Emperors tweeted: “Best news I’ve heard all day.” Jay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, called it “a visionary and dramatic step . . . a victory for consumers, and a red-letter day in the history of publishing.”

Tor never says it has become more profitable, but the company does relish the role it is taking in leading the publishing industry towards a more consumer-friendly business model.

The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor and Tor UK as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern—and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community. And a year on we’re still pleased that we took this step with the imprint and continue to publish all of Tor UK’s titles DRM-free.

So the lesson from Tor is simple – for low-cost impulse purchases DRM doesn’t add value. High quality, fairly priced, and easy to access works will continue to attract a growing market. These are the points of emphasis and differentiation for the marketplace. DRM may be a legal solution, but it is not a sound business strategy.