Publicity Rights, False Endorsement, and the Effective Protection of Private Property

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INTRODUCTION

Publicity rights, though lacking a physical manifestation, are of high social benefit. These rights protect the commercial value in an individual's name. As with other forms of property rights, the state should enforce them vigorously and effectively. In theory, these rights are currently protected, an implicit recognition of their value. In practice, however, two concerns are emerging: the devaluation of wealthier individuals' claims for protection and the use of an overly complex test that fails to provide adequate predictability or expedience. Indeed, the intellectual property protected by publicity rights--essentially the right to exploit a well-known reputation commercially--is particularly fragile because its value, though real and substantial, is embedded in public perceptions and can be easily damaged by undesired associations. (1) This Note proposes a revision of the publicity rights test and suggests that courts import the "Endorsement Test" from First Amendment doctrine to remedy these two issues while operating within the familiar framework of its existing jurisprudence. Guided by the rationale for the right, as demonstrated by its theoretical justifications, false endorsement claims should be evaluated under the following standard: In light of the context, would it appear to a reasonable observer that the disputed message constitutes an endorsement?

Dating to Adam Smith's publication of the Wealth of Nations, theorists have long recognized that a myriad of societal benefits flow from the protection of personal property. (2) As with physical property, courts have acknowledged the right of an individual to the intangible goodwill associated with his name. Today, this recognition is represented by the common-law right of publicity (3) and its statutory counterpart, the federal Lanham Act. (4)

There are, however, twin assaults on this element of personal property. First, a recent circuit court decision suggested that the individuals who most often bring suits to protect their publicity rights--wealthy celebrities--are less deserving of such property rights than the often poorer individuals who attempt to trade on their names and images. Even if this position represented a sensible policy, it ignores the reality that many of these individuals likely generated much of that wealth through the savvy development of an endorsement persona, all the while destroying their ability to continue to control or develop such a persona. Second, even where relief is eventually granted, the courts' doctrine creates delays and uncertainty. Indeed, courts often deploy complex balancing tests, evaluating the relevant question as one of fact. This method makes it difficult to offer the protections that the law should afford expeditiously and creates pressures for settlement even where no legal defense should exist.

In light of the importance of these property rights, an effective and expedient means of resolution is needed. The test must be effective at determining whether a false endorsement exists, because overprotection of property rights may be just as socially deleterious as underprotection. (5) Social science literature analyzing how individuals process information offers perspective on how best to protect this intellectual property. Indeed, some existing case law is already consistent with this research.

A review of case law in other realms reveals that there is already a test that can provide the robust protections required. The Endorsement Test from First Amendment case law would ask whether a reasonable person would think that the challenged material suggests that the plaintiff was either endorsing or disapproving the defendant's message. (6) Moreover, the relevant prong of this test already functions as a question of law, (7) allowing judges to dispose of the matter without lengthy trials where the issues are clear-cut. It is also consistent with the leading cases and research in the field. …