The Political Economy of Celebrity Rights
24 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2017 Last revised: 29 Mar 2018
Date Written: June 16, 2017
This essay discusses how the right of publicity became such a robust property right — much more far-reaching than analogous rights in copyright or trademark. One cannot explain the accretion of celebrity publicity rights as a matter of legal logic or simple reaction to the growing economic value of celebrity endorsements. Instead, the essay explains the right's expansion from the perspective of political economy. Critical innovations to the right of publicity occurred in the particular political environment of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite some groups' resistance to new, specialized entitlements for celebrities, the conditions were right for a particular coalition of interest groups to push through new vigorous interpretations of the right of publicity. I also discuss the right's expansion from the perspective of a different political actor: judges. At the end of the twentieth century, the political optics of celebrity changed in a way that provided more comfort for judges who were once hostile to the anti-democratic implications of publicity rights. Judges confronted a changing social definition of celebrity that was no longer linked to merit or inner greatness. Anyone, it was now argued, had the potential to become famous. This change in the meaning of fame made celebrity legal protections seem less like a perk for a rare few and more like a fundamental right available to all.
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