In 2006, the California Court of Appeal in Kirby v. Sega held that a video game’s depiction of pop singer Deee-Lite in a fanciful outer space setting is a “transformative use” protected by the First Amendment. On Wednesday of this week, the California Court of Appeal in No Doubt v. Activision held that a video game’s depiction of pop singer Gwen Stefani in a fanciful outer space setting singing songs she would never perform is not transformative, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. And if the seeming inconsistency between those two rulings confuses the heck out of you, welcome to the club.
The tension between the right of publicity and the First Amendment is thicker than the“extenders” and “non-meat substances” in Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef.” I know this firsthand. A dozen years ago, my colleagues and I represented Dustin Hoffman in a lawsuit against Los Angeles Magazine, which took a picture of Hoffman as he appeared in Tootsie, superimposed his head on the body of a male model wearing the latest dress and high heels, and used him as an involuntary model in one of its fashion issues. We won the case at trial, and Hoffman was awarded $3 million dollars in damages (including $1.5 million in punitive damages). Unfortunately for us and our client, the Ninth Circuit later reversed, finding that the magazine’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment.
In the intervening years, the state of right of publicity law has only become more confusing, primarily as a result of California’s I-know-it-when-I-see-it concept of “transformative use.” This doctrine is meant to balance a publisher’s First Amendment interests against a celebrity’s interest in preventing the unauthorized use of his name and likeness for commercial purposes. An admirable enough goal, right? And the California Supreme Court purports to have reduced that goal to a fairly straightforward-sounding “test”: “when artistic expression takes the form of a literal depiction or imitation of a celebrity for commercial gain” without adding additional significant expression, the use is not “transformative” and is an infringement; but if the celebrity image is merely one of the “raw materials from which an original work is synthesized,” the work is transformative and is protected by the First Amendment.
I practice in this area of law, and I like to think of myself as reasonably bright, but I have yet to fully understand this so-called “test.” And judging by the way the cases have come down on this issue, courts are just as perplexed as I am: Continue reading the full story . . . »