Strategic Intellectual Property Litigation, the Right of Publicity, and the Attenuation of Free Speech: Lessons from the Schwarzenegger Bobblehead Doll War (and Peace)

36 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2008


This article is part of a Symposium that examines the legal and policy issues raised by the Schwarzenegger bobblehead doll litigation, in which a Hollywood star-turned-governor sued under California's right of publicity laws and under federal copyright law to stop a small Ohio company from selling a bobblehead doll depicting Schwarzenegger in a business suit, with a bandolier of bullets, and brandishing an assault rifle. The article contends that defendants' unauthorized use of the Schwarzenegger image on dolls and their accompanying packaging was permissible as First Amendment-protected free speech under California's right of publicity laws and also constituted fair use under federal copyright law. The article rejects the argument that a First Amendment defense to plaintiff's right of publicity claims was unavailable because a bobblehead doll is not a "traditional" medium of expression for ideas. The article recognizes that overly expansive assertions of rights of publicity and other intellectual property rights threaten to stifle creative expression and diminish the cultural commons. The article also calls for clearer and more consistent recognition of defenses to right of publicity claims, particularly for cases where a defendant's unauthorized appropriation of another's image or likeness is for purposes of caricature, parody, or satire┬┐especially where the image is that of a politician. It concludes that the settlement of the Schwarzenegger bobblehead doll case illustrates how "strategic" assertions of even objectively non-meritorious rights of publicity can allow powerful plaintiffs to censor unflattering depictions of them and to unduly expand intellectual property rights without full adjudication on the merits of such claims.

This insight is critical, because while other scholars have suggested that the "over-protection" of intellectual property rights (including rights of publicity) has a deleterious effect on freedom of expression and the public domain, these criticisms focus almost exclusively on published appellate cases. Yet, as this article reminds us, most cases settle and never become litigated cases, much less published appellate decisions. And most disputes - including intellectual property disputes - never result in formal litigation in the first instance. As with most other areas of the civil disputing process, intellectual property disputes are processed in the "shadow of the law", where repeat players have strategic advantages to shape the outcomes of disputes in their favor. Thus, if we want to know whether intellectual property rights are over-protected, we need to know what happens (and why) in the shadow of intellectual property law. This insight is the basis for the author's empirical research-in-progress focusing on "strategic intellectual property enforcement" by owners of trademarks, copyrights, and patents, including enforcement that never results in litigation and is thus under the radar of what most legal scholars in this area of law examine.

Keywords: Intellectual property,right of publicity,first amendment,litigation process

Suggested Citation

Gallagher, William T., Strategic Intellectual Property Litigation, the Right of Publicity, and the Attenuation of Free Speech: Lessons from the Schwarzenegger Bobblehead Doll War (and Peace). Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 581, 2005. Available at SSRN:

William T. Gallagher (Contact Author)

Golden Gate University School of Law ( email )

536 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States
(415) 369-5339 (Phone)

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