Athletes’ Right of Publicity Claim Preempted by Copyright Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 5 April 2017 that the Copyright Act preempted the California right of publicity claims of Plaintiffs, former college athletes whose photographs are part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) library of images license online by Defendant. The case is Maloney v. T3Media, 15-55630.

Plaintiffs played on the Catholic University basketball team from 1997 to 2001, which won the 2001 Men’s Division III NCAA championship game. Defendant T3Media entered into an agreement with NCAA in 2012 to store, host and license the images in the NCAA photo library. The NCAA runs 90 championships in 24 sports across 3 divisions, and its library contains thousands of photographs of championship games, including some taken during the 2001 Men’s Division III championship game in which Plaintiffs participated.

T3Media sold non-exclusive licenses online for two years that allowed users to download copies of the NCAA photographs for personal use. Plaintiffs contended that such action was a violation of their California statutory right of publicity, California Civil Code § 3344, California common law right of publicity, and a violation of California Unfair Competition Law.

They filed a putative class action suit in June 2014 in the U.S. Central District Court of California on behalf of current and former NCAA athletes whose names, images and likeness had been used without their consent by Defendant for purpose of advertising, selling, or soliciting the purchase of these photographs.

The two-steps of an anti-SLAPP analysis

Defendant moved for a special motion to strike under California anti-SLAPP statute, Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16, which aims to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Courts follow two-steps when assessing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike: first the moving defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit arises from an act in furtherance of defendant’s right to free speech, as protected by the First Amendment. The second part of the assessment shifts the burden to plaintiff who must demonstrate a probability of prevailing on any of her claims.

T3Media had argued that the photographs at stake, and their captions, had been published in a public forum in connection with a matter of public interest. The district court agreed, finding that the photographs “fell within the realm of an issue of public interest (District Court, at 1134).

This shifted the burden to Plaintiffs to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on any of their claims. Defendant claimed three affirmative defenses: (1) Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by federal copyright law, (2) were barred under the First Amendment, and (3) California right of publicity law exempts from liability use of likeness in connection with any news, public affairs, or sports broadcast or account.

The district court did not address the last two defenses as it found that Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the Copyright Act, because Plaintiffs asserted rights that fell within the subject matter of copyright, and granted Defendant special motion to strike. Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed.

As Plaintiffs had conceded that their suit arose from acts in furtherance of T3Media’s right to free speech, the Ninth Circuit only examined whether Plaintiffs indeed had demonstrated a reasonable probability of prevailing on their claims, and found they had not met that burden, as the Copyright Act preempted their claims.

The copyright preemption two-part test

Section 301 of the Copyright Act provides that common law or statutory state laws are preempted by rights “equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.” Courts in the Ninth Circuit use a two-part test to determine whether a state law claim is preempted the Copyright Act: the courts first decide if the subject matter of the state law is within the subject matter of copyright, and then determine if the rights asserted under state law are equivalent to the exclusive rights of the copyright holders, as determined by Section 106 of the Copyright Act. Parties only argued about the first part of the test.

The right of publicity claim is not preempted if its basis is the use of a likeness

Plaintiffs argued that their right of publicity claim was not preempted by the Copyright Act because publicity right claims protect the persona of an individual, which cannot be fixed in a tangible medium of expression (p. 12). They relied on Downing v. Abercrombie & Fitch, where the Ninth Circuit held that “the content of the protected right must fall within the subject matter of copyright” for the Copyright Act to preempt the state claim (Downing at 1003). Plaintiffs reasoned that their likeness is not with the subject matter of copyright and thus their state claim cannot be preempted by the Copyright Act.

Defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ likeness had been captured in an artistic work and had not been used on merchandise or in advertising. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit noted that “the “core” of the publicity right is the right not to have one’s identity used in advertising” (p. 13). The court of appeals concluded “that a publicity-right claim is not preempted when it targets non-consensual use of one’s name or likeness on merchandise or in advertising. But when a likeness had been captured in a copyrighted artistic visual work and the work itself is being distributed for personal use, a publicity-right claim interferes with the exclusive rights of the copyright holder, as is preempted by section 301 of the Copyright Act“ (p. 13)(emphasis of the Court).

The Ninth Circuit distinguished its Downing case from the case at stake, as the right of publicity claim in Downing is not about the publication of the photograph, but its use: Abercrombie used the surfer’s likeness in the catalog and had also sold reproductions of the tee-shirts worn by them in the photograph. The Ninth Circuit concluded that If the basis of the right of publicity claim is the use of a likeness in a photograph, the right of publicity claim is not preempted by copyright (p. 17).

When is a likeness misused in a work protected by copyright?

Therefore, the “crux of the issue” was whether the basis of the publicity-right claim was indeed to defend Plaintiff against a misuse of their likeness by Defendant. The court reasoned that Section 301 does not distinguish among different types of work protected by copyright, and that the pertinent issue was the way the likeness was used, not the type of the copyrighted work. In Downing, the basis of the publicity-right claim was not the publication of the photograph, but its use to advertise Abercrombie’s products and the creation of tee-shirts similar to those worn by Plaintiffs in the photograph, which were commercial exploitation of Plaintiff’s likeness (p. 19).

The Ninth Circuit noted further that it held in 2006, in Laws v. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., that “federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s voice when the entirety of the allegedly misappropriated vocal performance is contained within a copyrighted medium” (Laws at 1141). The Ninth Circuit also cited its Jules Jordan Video, Inc. v. 144942 Canada Inc. 2010 case, where it ruled that federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s name and persona based entirely on the misappropriation of DVDs of movies in which plaintiff performed and of which he owned the copyright. Plaintiff had objected to the use of his likeness on the covers of counterfeit DVDs, which the Ninth Circuit found to be “still shots” of the performance protected by copyright. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Plaintiff claim was a copyright claim, not a claim that his likeness has been used on an unrelated product or in advertising. For the Ninth Circuit, a likeness embodied in a work protected by copyright is misused if it is used on an unrelated product or in advertising.

Why did Plaintiffs’ claim fail

Plaintiffs’ attorney argued at the hearing that Defendant was selling the photographs “as poster art, as desktop backgrounds, as digital goods” (video at 11:36). This is an interesting argument, as the Ninth Circuit attaches great importance to the type of use of the likeness. However, it is the consumers who are choosing how to use the images, within the rights provided to them by the license, not the Defendant.

The District Court explained that ruling in favor of Plaintiffs “would destroy copyright holders’ ability to exercise their exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, effectively giving the subject of every photograph veto power over the artist’s rights under the Copyright Act and destroying the exclusivity of rights the Copyright Act aims to protect (District Court at 1138).

Plaintiff’s attorney recognized during the hearing that non-commercial use of the photos would be acceptable (video at 13:36). When asked by the judges to give an example of non-commercial use, he suggested editorial use, in a student newspaper or a national newspaper. While the Court did thus not address the issue of free speech, several media organizations filed an amici curiae brief in support of Defendant, to ensure that “the right of publicity is not transformed into a right of censorship—one that can be used to prevent the dissemination of matters of public importance” (amici curiae brief p. 9).

This post has been first published on the TTLF Newsletter on Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum.

Image is courtesy of Flickr user Tom Woodward under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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