Rights of Privacy and Publicity for Film and Television

By Rob Hassett

An earlier version of this article appeared in the January 1997 issue of The Multimedia & Technology Licensing Law Report published, at that time, by Warren, Gorham & Lamont, and later published by West Group.  That article was based on program materials developed by the writer in connection with his presentation at the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana in August of 1996.

The writer wishes to thank Lori Brill, Lynn Hassett, and Adam Alexander for their help in updating earlier versions of this Article.


When may a producer of a film and/or television program use an individual’s name, likeness, or identity or information concerning such individual without permission? Restrictions on the use of names, likenesses and identities of individuals and public disclosure of information about them are governed by the right of publicity and two categories of the right of privacy.


Section 46 of the Restatement of the Law Third, Unfair Competition, states in pertinent part:

One who appropriates the commercial value of a person’s identity by using without consent the person’s name, likeness, or other indicia of identity for purposes of trade is subject to liability for the relief appropriate.

Section 652A of the Restatement of the Law, Torts 2d, states in pertinent part:

The right of privacy is invaded by: … (b) appropriation of the other’s name or likeness…; (c) unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life….;

The elements of appropriation invasion of privacy are the same as for violation of the right of publicity with one exception.  The invasion of the right of privacy is a personal tort and generally may not be assigned or inherited.  The  right of publicity, a property right, may generally be assigned and inherited. See, e.g., Martin Luther King Jr. Center For Social Change v. American Heritage Products, 250 Ga. 135, 296 S.E.2d 697 (Ga. 1982).

There are two other categories of the right of privacy which are not addressed in this article – wrongful intrusion and false light.  Intentional intrusion upon the solitude or seclusion of another on his or her private affairs or concerns if such intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person constitutes “wrongful intrusion.”  The elements of “false light” are the same as for defamation except that false light does not require that the false statement be disparaging.


English common law did not recognize the right of privacy or publicity except to the extent that such rights existed tangentially under copyright and trademark law. In 1890, Samuel D. Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote an article arguing that a right of privacy should exist. Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). The first court to accept the right of privacy was the Georgia Supreme Court in Pavesich v. New England Life Ins. Co., 122 Ga. 190, 50 S.E. 68 (1905).  The Georgia Supreme Court held that Mr. Pavesich stated a claim against New England Life for alleged wrongful use of his picture in an advertisement for the Defendant’s insurance products.  Today, privacy and publicity rights are based on state common and statutory law. Because these rights are relatively new and different legislatures and courts decide how they apply, there are variations in the interpretation and application of these rights.


Since the Pavesich case, some form of the right of privacy relating to appropriation and/or the right of publicity has been adopted either by statute or court decision in every state that has addressed the issue. Minnesota and Virginia (in Virginia only in federal cases applying Virginia law) appear to be the only states which have rejected right to privacy involving giving unreasonable publicity to an individual’s private life. See, Hendry v. Conner, 303 Minn. 317, 226 N.W.2d 921 (1975) and Williams v. Nathan, 21 Med. L. Rptr. 1339 (E.D. Va. 1993); Brown v. American Broadcasting Co., 704 F.2d 1296 (4th Cir. 1983).   In 1998, the Supreme Court of Minnesota overruled prior precedent in recognizing this right.  See, Lake v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 582 N.W.2d 231 (Minn.1998).

Written Consent

To avoid violating these rights, the best approach is to obtain a written consent from each person whose name, likeness, or identity will be included in a film or television program. There are three reasons consent should be obtained in writing. First, unless in writing, some state statutes provide that such consents are not valid. See, J. Thomas McCarthy, The Right of Publicity and Privacy, § 10.6 (2003). Second, there could be a dispute about the existence of an oral consent. Finally, unless the consent is in writing, there could be confusion concerning its scope.


Uses Permitted

There are often situations in which it is impractical to obtain written consent to use a name, likeness or identity and one must decide whether or not to use a particular photograph or video for a film or television program. Situations in which such uses are permitted include the reporting of newsworthy events and uses in which no person is identified or identifiable.  Courts generally hold that the use of names, likeness or identity in connection with the reporting of newsworthy events is allowed under the First Amendment which forbids any laws “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”

There are four circumstances in which the use of photographs, films and/or videos is permitted. First, the use of photographs, films and videos of buildings or other structures taken from public streets and similar non-restricted areas in which individuals are not recognizable does not violate anyone’s privacy or publicity rights. The reason is that privacy and publicity rights relate to individuals and not to buildings or other structures. See, e.g., Jaubert v. Crowley Post-Signal, Inc., 375 So.2d 1386 (La. 1979).  Of course it would still be important to make sure that the use of the photographs, films or videos of the structure does not infringe someone’s copyrights in the materials or constitute a violation of other privacy rights such as wrongful public disclosure of embarrassing private facts, which is discussed in this paper below, or amount to a wrongful intrusion, not addressed in this article but relating to such actions as peering into someone’s home through the windows.

Second, only individuals who are recognizable in a photograph or video have any claim for misappropriation of likeness or identity. Therefore, morphing pictures and videos so individuals are not recognizable eliminates any privacy and publicity right claims. See, e.g., Cheatham v. Paisano Publications, 891 F.Supp. 381 (W.D. Ken. 1995), where the Court said that there was a jury question whether or not the Plaintiff’s posterior was recognizable in the particular photograph.

In Pesina v. Midway, 948 F. Supp. 40 (N.D. Ill.1996), a martial artist hired to model for characters of the coin operated arcade games Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II alleged that use of his name and likeness in subsequent home video games violated his common law right of publicity.  Mr. Pesina’s movements had been captured on video, digitized, and incorporated into the games after extensive editing.  The district court granted Midway’s motion for summary judgment in part because Midway was able to show that the public did not recognize Mr. Pesina within the game.  “[A]fter comparing Mr. Pesina and the game character, Johnny Cage, who allegedly resembles the plaintiff, only 6% of 306 Mortal Kombat users identified Mr. Pesina as the model.”  Id. at 42.  The brief use of Pesina’s name in the game (for eight seconds only when a player won), although unauthorized, also was held not enough to constitute a right of publicity claim.

Third, photographs, videos, and films taken of participants and spectators in connection with a newsworthy event may be used in photo essays and documentaries of the event. In Cheatham v. Paisano Publications, supra, the Plaintiff was a jean “designer” who wore one of her own “designs” to a Kentucky bikers’ convention. She had cut out the bottom of a pair of jeans and replaced it with fishnet fabric. A magazine published a photo essay of the event which included pictures of her wearing her special outfit. She sued the magazine and claimed that it misappropriated her identity. In dismissing her claim, the Court held that the photo essay was a report of a newsworthy event. See also, Time, Inc. and Steve Kagan v. Sand Creek Partners, L.P., 825 F.Supp. 210 (S.D. Ind. 1993). The Court in Cheatham also held that use of the Plaintiff’s pictures on T-shirts was not a protected newsworthy use and, if the Plaintiff were recognizable from the picture, then Plaintiff would have a basis for a claim.

There are limitations on the use of name, likeness, and identity in connection with reporting news. For example, in the movie “Woodstock” there is an extensive interview with an individual responsible for cleaning latrines. This interviewee sued for misappropriation of his right of privacy. The Court held that he was made an “involuntary performer” due to the extensive interview and allowed the case to proceed to trial. See, Taggart v. Wadleigh-Maurice, Ltd., 489 F.2d 434 (3d Cir. 1973). Additionally, copying a performer’s entire performance goes beyond the allowed reporting of a newsworthy event and constitutes a violation of the performer’s right of publicity. See, Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, Co., 433 U.S. 564 (1977). Also, where a performance is staged using actors, such as a professional wrestling match, it is unlikely a Court would hold it to be the type of event to which the rights of publicity and appropriation policy do not apply. See, e.g., Ventura v. Titan Sports, Inc., 65 F.3d 725 (8th Cir. 1995).

Finally, use of names, pictures and identities in connection with the production of biographies of newsworthy individuals is permissible. In Harris Matthews v. Random House, 15 F.3d 432 (5th Cir. 1994), the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, applying Texas law, held that a book detailing the author’s and her ex-husband’s experiences as undercover agents did not violate the privacy or publicity rights of her ex-husband.  Information concerning their activities and convictions were the subject of news reports.  Thus, it was a matter of public record and considered newsworthy events. See, also, Mickey Dora v. Frontline Video, Inc., 18 Cal. Rptr. 2D 790 (Cal. App. 1993), in which Mickey Dora, a surfing legend, appeared in a video documentary entitled “The Legends of Malibu.”  The Court held that the use of Dora’s picture was newsworthy.

Uses Not Permitted

As to some extent referred to above, there are at least three (3) categories of uses of names, likenesses, and identities of individuals which are generally not permissible. Those uses involve advertising and similar commercial exploitation of name, likeness or identity, staged performances and exceeding the scope of agreements limiting scope of use.

First, use of an individual’s name, likeness, or identity in advertising, without that individual’s consent is not permitted. For example, in Town & Country Properties, Inc. v. Riggins, 249 Va. 387, 457 S.E.2d 356 (1995), the Plaintiff, who had been a successful football player for the Washington Redskins, transferred his interest in a house he owned in Virginia to his ex-wife as part of a divorce settlement. When his wife decided to sell the house, she placed his name and picture prominently on flyers promoting her sale of the house. The Supreme Court of Virginia held that Riggins had a claim for infringement of what was, in effect, his right of publicity. See also, Pooley v. National Hole-N-One Assoc., 89 F. Supp. 2d 1108 (D.C. Az. 2000) (holding that Plaintiff’s right of publicity was violated because Defendant used video footage of Plaintiff making a “hole in one” in a commercial manner to promote its fundraising program).  The aforementioned situation is treated differently from the use of an individual’s name, likeness or identity in advertising of a publication or other media in which that person’s name, likeness or identity is legally used. See, e.g., Montana v. San Jose Mercury News, Inc., 40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 639 (6th Cir. 1995); Lane v. Random House, Inc., 23 Med. L. Rptr. 1385 (D.D.C. 1995).   If the name, likeness or identity is used in a form of media for a legitimate purpose, it may also be used in advertising for that publication, television program or other media.

Also, use of an individual’s name, likeness or identity for a purely commercial purpose (as opposed to in an informative or artistic, including literary, work) is prohibited.  For example, use of the Reverend Martin Luther’s King’s profile on mugs without the consent of his estate was held to constitute a violation of the right of publicity in Martin Luther King Jr. Center For Social Change v. American Heritage Products, 250 Ga. 135, 296 S.E.2d 697 (Ga. 1982).  Likewise, selling posters with the photo of a model or recording artist (as opposed to, for example, including an informative article about them in magazines) is a violation of these rights.

Second, there is no exception to privacy and publicity rights with respect to individuals performing as actors and actresses in dramatic productions. See, e.g., Ventura v. Titan Sports, Inc., supra.

Third, even where use is newsworthy and does not constitute advertising, unauthorized usage has been held to be illegal in instances where the limited purpose for which the interview or pictures was intended is exceeded. In Multimedia WMAZ, Inc. v. Kubach, 212 Ga. App. 707, 443 S.E.2d 491 (Ga. App. 1994), the Plaintiff appeared on a television program in which he was interviewed about having contracted AIDS. Prior to the program, the Plaintiff and Defendant reached an understanding that the Plaintiff’s face would be disguised digitally so that he could not be identified. Apparently, due to the negligence of station employees, the Plaintiff was recognizable at the beginning of the show. The Court held that the Plaintiff had a claim. See also, Daughtry v. Booth & Random House, 23 Med. L. Rptr. 1215 (Glynn County, Georgia Superior Court 1994).


Parodies are entitled to a substantial degree of First Amendment protection.  However, this protection must be balanced against intellectual property rights. See, for example, the Supreme Court’s application of the Doctrine of Fair Use in the copyright law context in Luther R. Campbell, et al. v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 114 S.Ct. 1164 (1994). In Cardtoons, L.C. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 838 F. Supp. 1501 (N.D. Okla. 1993), the Plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment claiming that it was not a violation of the publicity rights of well-known baseball players to produce and distribute cards with caricatures and names similar to those baseball players and containing text on the back that ridicules the players. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals balanced the publicity rights of the baseball players against the Plaintiff’s First Amendment right to use parody to criticize activities of public figures.  The Court held that the Plaintiff was entitled to produce and distribute the cards. But see, White v. Sansung Electronics America, 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1991) in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held, over two vigorous dissents, that a print advertisement using a robot that mimicked and parodied the persona of Vanna White infringed her right of publicity. Critics argued that celebrities’ monopolization of words, names and images of general cultural significance would lead to the depletion of the public domain and the stifling of free expression. However, recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that California’s right of publicity protects against uses of one’s image in advertising.  Newcombe v. Adolph Coors Co., 157 F.3d 686 (9th Cir. 1998).

Artistic and Literary Uses

Many times artists employ the use of a name or likeness of a real person in their artistic and literary projects.  Although this may not fall under the umbrella of newsworthy events, the First Amendment’s right to free speech often shields forms of expressive art.  “The use of the name of a real person as the name…in a title of a work of entertainment” can be immune from liability where it has “some real artistic relevance” to the work and is “not  chosen just to exploit the publicity value of the person”.  J. Thomas McCarthy, 2 Rights of Publicity and Privacy § 8:72 (2d ed. 2000).

First amendment protection and the right of publicity recently clashed in a case involving the music industry.  In Parks v. LaFace Records, 76 F. Supp. 2d 775 (E.D. Mich. 1999), Rosa Parks sued the Defendants to prevent the use of her name as the title of a rap song written, performed, marketed and distributed by the Defendants.  Ms. Parks objected to the use of her name due to the content of the song.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan held that “because the title ‘Rosa Parks’ is not ‘wholly unrelated’ to Defendants’ song, and because the title is the name of an expressive work and not a disguised commercial for a product” the right of publicity did not exist.  Id. at 782.  The Second Circuit reversed and remanded holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the question of whether the title to the song “Rosa Parks” is or is not “wholly unrelated” to the content of the song.  The song does include the line “move to the back of the bus” but the Plaintiff argued that that line did not relate to Rosa Parks’ experience as a civil rights icon but rather to Outkast’s position that “Outkast” was superior to competitive music groups and that other groups should “take a back seat” to Outkast.  Interestingly, the Court of Appeals also held that there was a genuine issue of fact whether Rosa Parks had a claim for unfair competition under the federal Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1125(a), stating that: “Rosa Parks clearly has a property interest in her name akin to that of a person holding a trademark” and said that the only difference between a right of publicity claim and a claim for unfair competition, which the Court also referred to here as “false advertising,” is that a right of publicity claim does not require any evidence that a consumer is likely to be confused (i.e., any evidence that the public would believe that Rosa Parks had endorsed “Outkast’s” song).

In Guglielmi v. Spelling Goldberg, 25 Cal. 3d 860, 603 P.2d 454 (1979),  the Supreme Court of California skirted the issue by declaring that the right of publicity is not descendible.  However, in Chief Justice Bird’s concurrence, she discussed the issue of whether the use of a celebrity’s name and likeness in a fictional film exhibited on television constituted an actionable infringement of that person’s right of publicity.  Id. The Chief Justice emphasized that film is “a significant medium for the communication of ideas”…and “is protected by the constitutional guarantees of free expression”. Id. at 865.  Film is an expression of ideas and is entitled to constitutional protection irrespective of its contribution to the market place.  The nature of celebrity and prominence is that they will invite creative comment.  Chief Justice Bird concluded that in this situation the value of first amendment protections outweighs the right of publicity.  Additionally, the use of likeness in advertisements of the film was considered merely an adjunct to the exhibition of the film and therefore, not actionable. Id.

Although many instances encompass the use of famous personalities, cases involving private individuals also arise.  Recently, the Second Circuit, upheld a New York Court of Appeals ruling stating that a Plaintiff could not recover under New York’s right of privacy statute “regardless of any false implication that might be reasonably drawn from the use of her photographs to illustrate” a magazine column on sexual regrets.    Messenger v. Gruner + Jahr Printing and Publ’g, 208 F.3d 122 (2nd Cir. 2000).   This decision was based on the determination that the column was newsworthy, the Plaintiff’s picture bore a relationship to the article and the article was not an “advertisement in disguise.”  Id.   The model whose photograph accompanied the article was not informed of its use prior to publication.   Individuals are cautioned to review the pertinent statutes and/or common law in each state.  The case in question was in New York, a jurisdiction which has exemptions to the laws of right of publicity which many other states do not follow.

Advertising versus Other Use

Under the law in most states, use of a person’s name, likeness, or picture other than as part of a public event, for a newsworthy purpose or in connection with an artistic work not primarily an impersonation would not be allowed. See, e.g., Estate of Elvis Presley v. Robb Russen, 513 F.Supp. 1339 (D.Ct. N.J. 1981) where an Elvis impersonator was held to have violated the rights of the Elvis estate. In some states, misappropriation of privacy rights and publicity rights prohibit only advertising. Courts applying Tennessee and Virginia law have construed applicable statutes that way. See, e.g., Apple Corps. Ltd. v. A.D.P.R., Inc., 843 F.Supp. 342 (M.D. Tenn. 1993) (holding that a band impersonating the Beatles could not be restricted from performing its act but was restricted from advertising it). See also, Williams v. Nathan, 21 Med. L. Rptr. 1339 (E.D. Va. 1993). On the other hand, although the California statute relating to privacy and publicity rights prohibits only use of an individual’s name, likeness, or identity in advertising, the California common law dictates that individuals have such rights in situations not involving advertising. See, e.g., Perfect 10, Inc. v. Talisman Communs. Inc., 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4564 (C.D. Ca. 2000).  In Perfect 10, the Court granted a default judgment to Plaintiff as a result of Defendant’s appropriation of photographs of Plaintiff’s assignors.  The photographs were appropriated for the purpose of advertising and soliciting “sale of photographs and other works on Defendant’s website and for the purpose of selling the appropriated photographs through paid subscriptions to restricted areas of Defendant’s website.”   The Court ruled that this constituted a violation of California’s right of publicity law. See also, Dora v. Frontline Video, Inc., 15 Cal. App. 4th 536 (1993).


The tort of unreasonable public disclosure of embarrassing private facts is applicable only where the facts being publicized are not newsworthy or, if arguably newsworthy, go beyond the “information to which the public is entitled, and becomes a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake.” See, e.g., Baugh v. CBS, Inc., Group W. Television, 28 F.Supp. 745 (N.D. Cal. 1993), infra. In addition, the facts must be at least relatively confidential. In Cox Communications v. Lowe, 173 Ga. App. 812, 328 S.E.2d 384 (Ga. App. 1985), a prison inmate who incidentally appeared in a television report concerning prison abuse had no claim for public disclosure of the fact that he was imprisoned as his incarceration was a matter of public record. In Batts v. Capital City Press, Inc., 479 So.2d 534 (La. App. 1985), the Louisiana Court of Appeals held that because the Plaintiff was attacked in a public place, the information was public and could not be the subject of a claim for public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 8 F.3d 1222 (7th Cir. 1993), involved a book which detailed historical events. In the book, the writer discusses the life stories of various individuals. In a section regarding a particular woman, the author disclosed information about the woman’s ex-husband. The District Court rejected the ex-husband’s claim regarding publicity given to embarrassing private facts on the grounds that the information disclosed was either public record or publicly known prior to publication of the book. On the other hand, in Baugh v. CBS Company, Inc. Group W Television, 828 F.Supp. 745 (N.D. Cal. 1993), the Court held that there was a jury question whether the producers and broadcasters of Street Stories had gone too far in publicly disclosing private facts about a woman who was the victim of spousal abuse. See also, Johnson v. Sawyer, 4 F.3d 369 (5th Cir. 1993), in which a Texas court held that the IRS was liable for wrongfully disclosing confidential information relating to a taxpayer’s tax return.

With the explosion of the Internet, the rights of publicity and privacy have entered a new battlefield.  In a manner of seconds, photography, music and streaming video can be distributed to subscribers worldwide, posing increasing threats to the protection of these rights.  Once posted on the Web, users can copy items almost instantaneously.  This issue of unreasonable publicity of private facts was recently addressed in Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group Inc., et. al., 5 F.Supp. 2d 823 (D.C. Cal. 1998).  Singer Bret Michaels and actress Pamela Anderson Lee sought to enjoin Defendants from disseminating videotape via the Internet of Michaels and Lee engaged in sexual intercourse.  Plaintiffs filed a preliminary injunction, inter alia, for violation of the right of privacy and right of publicity.  The Defendant argued that Ms. Anderson’s nude appearances in magazines, movies and publicly distributed videotapes rendered the facts on the Michaels videotape no longer private.   The Court disagreed concluding that the private facts depicted on the video were not public by either the “virtue of Lee’s professional appearances or by dissemination of the Tommy Lee videotape.” Id. at 841.  Furthermore, the Court disposed of the newsworthiness argument by noting that the “privilege to report newsworthy information is not without limit.  ‘Where the publicity is so offensive as to constitute a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake, it serve no legitimate public interest and is not deserving of protection’.” Id. at 840 (citing Diaz v. Oakland Tribune, Inc., 188 Cal. Rptr. 762 at 767 (1983)).  However, the United States District Court granted summary judgment to Paramount Pictures and Viacom (for broadcasting information about the video, as opposed to broadcasting the video itself, in a syndicated television program) noting that the California Supreme Court had recently restated the principle that the newsworthiness defense was to be construed broadly and reiterated that it is “not limited to high-minded discussion of politics and public affairs.” Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group Inc., et. al., 48 U.S.P.Q. 2d (BNA) 1891(D.C. Cal. 1998).


It is always better to obtain a written consent which permits the use of the name, likeness, or identity of any individual appearing in or who is the subject of disclosure of events in any publication or production.  As outlined above, there are limited situations in which one may make such use without permission.  However, because of the legal uncertainty in this area, it is necessary to have competent counsel review the situation presented prior to any such proposed use.

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