Disentangling the Right of Publicity

54 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2017  

Eric E. Johnson

University of Oklahoma College of Law

Date Written: 2017

Abstract

Despite the increasing importance attached to the right of publicity, its doctrinal scope has yet to be clearly articulated. The right of publicity supposedly allows a cause of action for the commercial exploitation of a person’s name, voice, or image. The inconvenient reality, however, is that only a tiny fraction of such instances are truly actionable. This Article tackles the mismatch between the blackletter doctrine and the shape of the case law, and it aims to elucidate, in straightforward terms, what the right of publicity actually is.

This Article explains how, in the absence of a clear enunciation of its scope, courts have come to define the right of publicity negatively, through the application of independent defenses based on free speech guarantees and copyright preemption. This inverted doctrinal structure has created a continuing crisis in the right of publicity, leading to unpredictable outcomes and the obstruction of clear thinking about policy concerns.

The trick to making sense of the right of publicity, it turns out, is to understand that the right of publicity is not really one unitary cause of action. Instead, as this Article shows, the right of publicity is best understood as three discrete rights: an endorsement right, a merchandizing entitlement, and a right against virtual impressment. This restructuring provides predictability and removes the need to resort to constitutional doctrines and preemption analysis to resolve everyday cases. The multiple-distinct-rights view may also provide pathways to firmer theoretical groundings and more probing criticisms.

Keywords: Right of Publicity, Intellectual Property, Torts

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Eric E., Disentangling the Right of Publicity (2017). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 111, No. 4, 2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3039036

Eric E. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma College of Law ( email )

300 Timberdell Road
Norman, OK 73019
United States

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