Manuel Noriega Sues Activision From Jail Over Call Of Duty Depiction

from the dictating-the-content dept

You know, when it comes to publicity rights, that expansion of law that masturbates celebrity egos like no other, I can laugh it off when we hear from the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Katherine Heigl, and Dan Snyder. I mean, sure they’re famous and rich, but they still probably deserve that famous Hitchhiker’s Guide designation of “mostly harmless.” That their attacks on anyone who dares make even the barest reference to their holy visages typically fail usually serves as enough mental closure in my mind to keep the dogs from barking in my head at night.

Manuel Noriega, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal and his lawsuit against Activision over his portrayal in a Call of Duty game just makes me angry.

Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, is suing Call of Duty’s video games publisher. The ex-military ruler is seeking lost profits and damages after a character based on him featured in Activision’s 2012 title Black Ops II. The 80-year-old is currently serving a jail sentence in Panama for crimes committed during his time in power, including the murder of critics.

So let’s get this straight: an octogenarian former dictator of Panama, who has been tried and convicted in two separate countries and is currently residing in a prison in Panama, is suing a United States video game publisher over his depiction? Now can we all go ahead and admit publicity rights are ridiculous? And Noriega’s suit is a special brand of silly, according to entertainment lawyer Jas Purewal.

“But Noriega isn’t a US citizen or even a resident. This means that his legal claim becomes questionable, because it’s unclear on what legal basis he can actually bring a case against Activision.”

It’s strange that we even have to ask the question, isn’t it? The same status Noriega enjoys as a public and historical figure is being used to protect his depiction as a public and historical figure. If we allow publicity rights to dominate the public interest in commenting and portraying public figures, even for entertainment purposes, where is that going to end? That Noriega’s age puts him perilously close to crossing the line of all of this being applied to the deceased is even more worrisome. Perhaps the families of long-dead historical devils will look to bury their lineage’s history in publicity rights law if this sort of thing is allowed to go on unchecked.

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Comments on “Manuel Noriega Sues Activision From Jail Over Call Of Duty Depiction”

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39 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Let us consider for a moment that he is an American citizen with such deplorable past. When somebody wants to use your image for profit there are such publicity rights involved. Should him be barred from earning some bucks from the game just because he did deplorable things in the past? I’d say no.

Just food for thought, I pretty much agree with the article here.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Here’s what I’ll never understand about publicity rights in the context of your question. Let’s consider a few points.

1. Historically, public figures enjoy LESS protection in certain forms of media, including journalism, parody work, etc.

2. Historical figures likewise enjoy LESS protection than the average person by virtue of their stories being known, meaning that journalists, historians, and documentarians are generally fairly free to teach and tell their tales. Nobody, for instance, insists that Ken Burns gets permission and pays every baseball and jazz player he immortalizes.

3. Video Games are not seen as art in this country, generally speaking, and are generally not regarded as commentary or speech.

4. Video Games get sued for publicity rights by historical and/or public figures.

To me, as unsatisfying a conclusion as it is, this all boils down to a disrespect of games as a cultural medium. After all, it’s not as though Noriega hasn’t been featured in creative works in the past (example below), or referenced in movies/television. It’s just that games are somehow different, for reasons nobody seems to be able to properly explain to me….

http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Favorite-Novel-Lawrence-Wright/dp/1416562478

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“When somebody wants to use your image for profit there are such publicity rights involved.”

Not if you’re a “public figure” such as a politician or convicted criminal (but I repeat myself).
Add to that the fact he’s not an American citizen and the privacy and publicity rights concepts go out the window.
Plus he’s called “Raul Menendez”, so it’s not like the creators are doing “Call of Duty: Kill Noriega” or somesuch.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

CIA, Mossad (his deputy was Mike Harari, eternal deputy director of Mossad, although he spent the 70’s and 80’s in latin america, after “escaping” (escorted out by the Americans then given back to Israel) he became a high placed diplomat at the Israel Embasssy in the UK. Harari that is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thinking about this more, it is not dissimilar to the NCAA lawsuit going on now. A number of players have sued the NCAA because it profited from the use of their images and likenesses in football and basketball video games. In this case it seems that there is a tacit agreement that publicity rights are in play and that the game company needs to compensate them. However the dispute is over who gets the money. Personally, I’m pulling for the players.

The Noriega case is interesting. Setting aside technical legal issues like citizenship- why wouldn’t he enjoy publicity rights? Clear college athletes are “public” figures and I’d argue that given the obsession with sports- past, present and future- that they are likewise historical figures, though admittedly not of Noriega’s magnitude.

In any event, why should a video game company or a movie studio be able to depict my life/image/persona in a commercial, money-making endeavor without compensating me? Particularly if such depiction is central to the film or game?

You may not like publicity rights, but you shouldn’t like the studios or video game companies getting rich from exploiting the fame or notoriety of others without giving them a share of the profits.

Starke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Noriega isn’t really central to the game. The game revolves around events in the 1980s and the 2020s, involving a character named Raul Melendez, who was screwed by the CIA, and sets about engineering his revenge. Noriega features into one of the mid game missions set in Panama in ’89.

While he’s central to that mission, he’s fairly unimportant to the story as a whole.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Thinking about this more, it is not dissimilar to the NCAA lawsuit going on now”

No, it’s completely different.

“you shouldn’t like the studios or video game companies getting rich from exploiting the fame or notoriety of others without giving them a share of the profits.”

So, all the Civilisation games now owe the descendants of Gandhi and Cleopatra revenue? Tarantino owes Hitler’s family? Shakespeare owed Henry V’s family royalties? How far back do you want to go here? Or, does it only apply to people who are alive – Seth Rogan now owes Kim Jong Un royalties?

Face it, political figures are not people who play a ball game in college. Different rules apply – and for good reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Your argument suffers from a flaw in your premise. You’re referring to fame and notoriety as some form of property. The problem with that perspective is that fame and notoriety are culturally and historically bestowed upon someone, not a product of their own making. There are plenty of people who tried to be famous or considered notable, some of whom might arguably have “deserved” it, but who are nonetheless not famous or considered notable. Fame and notoriety are external provisions from the culture and society that bestow them. They are a group effort. The concept of fame and notoriety cannot be the product of a single person’s efforts, despite how much their efforts may facilitate or take advantage of opportunities to facilitate the bestowment of attention and thought that fame and notoriety are composed of. So when you say “exploiting the fame and notoriety,” other people hear that as “speaking a common cultural language.” Without being able to make reference to or draw upon the culture surrounding famous or historical persons without having to pay out for such usage, you’ve basically said that artistic expression and human storytelling should cease.

lfroen (profile) says:

Why does it matter whether he is US citizen? If wrongdoing happened in USA _and_ done by US citizen and/or corporation – that’s under US jurisdiction.
If some US person steal from me while I’m visiting US – he’s gonna be caught and put to trial. Even if alleged wrongdoing is not a criminal matter – let’s say it’s breach of contract, I still can go to US court.

Note, that it doesn’t matter whether “publicity rights” are ridiculous or not. Assuming US laws works this way – Noriega definitely can sue.

Starke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re kind of conflating civil law from criminal here… a little bit.

In a criminal case, if the state (that is the US) has personal jurisdiction over the criminal, and subject matter jurisdiction over the crime, they can attempt to prosecute.

Personal jurisdiction just means, do they have the person, and they can actually get this through extradition, if the other country agrees. In your example, the criminal is still in the US, so American prosecutors would have personal jurisdiction.

Subject matter would be, usually, did the crime take place in that country. If the theft happens in the US, they’re going to have subject matter jurisdiction.

Civil law works a little differently. Jurisdiction is basically the same, though personal jurisdiction is a little more fluid in civil cases (IIRC).

There was a case back in the 80s, where someone was allowed to file a civil suit in the US against someone outside of it, for torts that happened outside the US… and, ironically, I kind of think it might have involved Noriega, though I can’t find the case right now.

This is the inverse, the alleged tort happened in the US, so the US has subject matter and personal jurisdiction (over Activision).

The question is, can Noriega file? I want to say it’s not even a citizenship issue, because if he was in the US it would be a non-issue. But, because he’s not in the US, and can’t come here to file suit personally… that could be a problem.

Again, in a criminal case, it doesn’t matter because the opposing party is the state, not a private individual, and (this will sound stupid, but) the state is always going to be in its own jurisdiction. In a civil case, there usually isn’t any state involvement (as an adversarial party), so, where Noriega is, becomes an issue.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If some US person steal from me while I’m visiting US – he’s gonna be caught and put to trial.”

Because you’d both be in the US and under US jurisdiction at the time the offence was committed. If you had something happen to you while you were in Venezuela that wasn’t a crime there but it was in the US, it wouldn’t apply.

“Even if alleged wrongdoing is not a criminal matter – let’s say it’s breach of contract, I still can go to US court.”

If the contract was signed in the US under US law, yes. But, there is no contract here. Only an assumption that some rights should have been granted by US law to someone who’s never been to the country while the law was in effect (AFAIK)

“Assuming US laws works this way”

I’m pretty sure they don’t, but let’s see what the outcome is. If he’s successful, it’s a horrifically dangerous precedent, especially if applied to historical figures.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

‘So, it looks like you’d like to depict my personal history in a truthful, unflattering manner. Needless to say, I don’t approve of this, after all, who are you to tell people what I’ve done in the past? As such, I demand that you remove any and all references to myself and my actions from your game/movie/book, or face legal action.’

Oh yeah, I can’t see that precedent being used by public figures to bury their past at all… /s

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“someone who’s never been to the country while the law was in effect (AFAIK)”

Further research suggests this might not be correct if publicity rights do apply, but the following suggests they won’t (it seems Noriega has already been extradited from the US before the game was announced).

“In 2008, a federal judge in California ruled that Marilyn Monroe’s rights of publicity were not protectable in California. The court reasoned that since Monroe was domiciled in New York at the time of her death, and New York does not protect a celebrity’s deceased rights of publicity, her rights of publicity ended upon her death”

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why does it matter whether he is US citizen?

Because right of publicity laws are state laws designed specifically to protect the residents of those particular states. See: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080407/172509780.shtml

If some US person steal from me while I’m visiting US – he’s gonna be caught and put to trial. Even if alleged wrongdoing is not a criminal matter – let’s say it’s breach of contract, I still can go to US court.

But if the law says it only protects residents and you’re not a resident, well, you’re not going to get very far. Just like Noriega won’t.

Note, that it doesn’t matter whether “publicity rights” are ridiculous or not. Assuming US laws works this way – Noriega definitely can sue.

These are state laws, and they don’t work the way you assumed.

Starke (profile) says:

Re: Profit from a Crime

Probably not, given that most of the events surrounding his character in Black Ops 2 never actually occurred?

Also, as far as I know the laws regarding profiting from a crime are all over the map on what they do and don’t allow. It’s not a situation where there’s “a law”, it’s a situation where there’s hundreds, if not thousands of different laws that apply in different circumstances.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

So he's suing for historical accuracy?

I never even heard of the guy until today. Hard for me to know how he was funded.

Well, just google him. I’m sure there’s something about him on some site or other, like this one:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuel_Noriega

Manuel has been featured in the popular Call of Duty: Black Ops II video game. The former dictator of Panama who trafficked drugs and laundered money was worried about his image and filed a lawsuit against Activision.

But this just shows how insane he is. At 80, he’s worried about his historical role in the drug cartels? He’s really not that crazy is he..oh, wait. It’s the cumulative effect of all that cocaine he helped traffic through Panama, some of which undoubtedly ended up in his bloodstream.

John85851 (profile) says:

Historically accurate game?

As a public figure, does he even have the right to sue? It seems like this is the same as a US president suing a game company over his likeness.
Using this argument, it doesn’t matter if Noriega is a criminal or not: he was the head of a country, which means he’s a public, political figure. Anyone should be able to use his likeness as parody or in a historically accurate game.

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