Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hart v. Electronic Arts: First Amendment Does Not Trump the Right of Publicity

In adopting and applying the transformative use test for balancing the First Amendment against the right of publicity, yesterday the Third Circuit ruled in Hart v. Electronic Arts that the First Amendment does NOT trump college players' right of publicity in the context of video game use of their likenesses.  The court's 62-page opinion is here and it is a fascinating read for those of you who, like me, have an interest in right of publicity law.

Courts that have rejected professional athletes' right of publicity claims in various contexts (such as fantasy league use and parody trading card use) have sometimes highlighted the fact that "they are already handsomely compensated."  While in my view this has no relevance in evaluating a professional athlete's right of publicity claim, the Third Circuit in a footnote (pg. 23 of the opinion) points out that it is obviously inapplicable to right of publicity cases involving amateur athletes:
We reject as inapplicable in this case the suggestion that those who play organized sports are not significantly damaged by appropriation of their likeness because "players are rewarded, and handsomely, too, for their participation in games and can earn additional large sums from endorsement and sponsorship arrangements." (citations omitted)  If anything, the policy considerations in this case weigh in favor of [the athletes].  As we have already noted, intercollegiate athletes are forbidden from capitalizing on their fame while in school.

The right of publicity claim in the O'Bannon/Keller consolidated case is pending appeal on the opposite side of the country in the Ninth Circuit.  The district court in that case has already ruled that the First Amendment does not trump the players' right of publicity in the context of video game use.  It would surprise me if the Ninth Circuit does not ultimately uphold the district court's ruling.  But even if the Ninth Circuit were to reverse the district court, it would result in a split of circuits on this question.   The bottom line, therefore, is that this is a highly significant and ground-breaking decision by the Third Circuit in favor of college players.