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Publicity Rights Being Used To Try To Stop Family Members From Talking Publicly About Other Family Members

from the just-as-intended dept

For years now, we've been writing about the rise of publicity rights as a new(ish) form of intellectual property that was ripe for abusing. These are laws, usually at the state level, which were officially designed to allow famous people to block companies from misappropriating their image in order to suggest an endorsement. You can kind of understand how that type of thing might make sense, though you'd think that certain existing misappropriation and fraud statutes might cover most of the really bad scenarios. However, over time, publicity rights laws have expanded massively, leading to some crazy lawsuits. In the past few weeks, we've seen two specific ones that highlight just how insane publicity rights laws have become.

First up, a pair of siblings sought to stop another sister from writing anything about the death of their mother. Eric Goldman summarizes the situation:
Today’s family feud involves a mom, Lois Reynolds, and her three kids, sisters Sylvia and Robin and brother Doug. Mom died in January 2011. A few months before mom’s death, sister Robin wrote about end-of-life issues and published the article in a (now-defunct?) online publication Phoenix Woman. I thought the article provided fairly straightforward observations about caregiving to the elderly, but siblings Sylvia and Doug were “shocked, hurt and deeply angry” about the article. Sylvia had a lawyer send Robin a demand that Robin:

refrain from making any ‘[p]ublication actually or reasonably perceived to be about or relating to Lois (including without limitation Lois’s name, likeness and description…).’

(Please re-read that demand again. Say what???). Undeterred, on Mother’s Day 2011, Robin “posted a blog tribute to Lois that included a photograph of herself with her mother.” In response, the estate listed, as one of its assets, a legal claim against Robin for violations of mom’s publicity rights, which Robin challenged in the estate proceedings.

Yikes! The second case involves someone famous... but that's not who's arguing for publicity rights to protect himself. Actor Jason Patric is involved in an apparently bitter custody battle over his son. His ex-girlfriend sought to use California's publicity rights law to stop Patric from using his son's name in the name of an organization he set up to "raise awareness of parental alienation." Patric, rightly, points out that he should be able to actually use his own son's name and it would be ridiculous for the law to block that.

Thankfully, on both of these cases, the efforts at using publicity rights for the sake of censorship have failed. The court in Arizona (which doesn't have an explicit publicity rights statute, but recognizes common law publicity rights) noted that publicity rights cannot restrict the use of someone's identity "in news reporting, commentary, entertainment, works of fiction or nonfiction" and thus decided that it is perfectly fine for Robin to write about her mother. In Patric's case, a judge noted that blocking Patric from using the name of his son would represent unlawful prior restraint and violate the First Amendment.

It's good to see that both of these attempts failed. But just the fact that we've seen a couple of these cases means it's likely that we'll be seeing many more -- and sooner or later some may actually succeed. Or, worse, people will start to lobby to adjust publicity rights laws in a manner to expand them to cover this sort of behavior. It's good that these two attempts have failed, but it shows where people go once you start to give them the power to censor others with new forms of "intellectual property."

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Michael, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 9:16am

    Sylvia had a lawyer send Robin a demand

    I can (almost) understand someone being emotionally upset about a recently departed parent and losing their sense of reality, but there should be a special hole in which we dump the bodies of attorneys that would send a letter this rediculous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 9:24am


    If you gave these lawyers a special hole, soon enough the other lawyers would start bitching about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Michael, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 9:32am

    Re: Re:

    I'll make room.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Baron von Robber, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 9:39am

    I would comment....

    ...but I have brothers and sisters. ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Mark Noo (profile), Apr 29th, 2014 @ 10:25am

    family harmony

    Tort law has special protections concerning family members and their ability to sue.
    e.g. Suzy(sister) tells Johnny (brother) she is going to kill him and then hits him.
    If they were not brother and sister this would be the tort of both assault and battery.
    However, courts don't allow for this for the obvious reason that lawsuits upset family harmony.

    There is no way to know what they are going to do here but I assume they will come up with some sort of similar ruling.
    The divorce case is something different. Family harmony is already destroyed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Ninja (profile), Apr 29th, 2014 @ 10:31am

    This actually tells tons about the individuals threatening and using the laws against their family. And about how united the family is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 1:51pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Would you dance and cluck like a chicken on a street corner for 1 hour if someone paid you enough money?

    That's how a lawyer works. You pay them enough they will send a cease and desist letter to the President of the United States. Those letters are just threats. They can even tell you that you have to believe in Cthulhu or they will take you to court over it. Additionally, you just might be in court because a judge just couldn't resist taking the case over morbid curiosity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 29th, 2014 @ 2:24pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "Would you dance and cluck like a chicken"

    Bad analogy. A better analogy is "Would you threaten to kneecap someone if you were paid enough money to do so?"

    "That's how a lawyer works"

    Which is precisely why lawyers are often demonized.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2014 @ 5:12pm

    1st Amendment Wins!

    Jason Patric fought and defeated a legal motion to bar him from speaking about his son.

    "Thanks to the First Amendment, the actor (Jason Patric) fends off a restraining order (not to speak of his son) demanded by the mother (ex-girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber) of his four-year-old child."

    (Only source I could find)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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