Free Speech and Publicity Rights

While protection of free speech under the First Amendment remains one of the foundations of American society, the First Amendment is not always a defense against suits for violation of intellectual property, such as the rights to a person’s likeness (publicity rights), as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently illustrated in the Davis v. Electronic Arts case.  Electronic Arts (“EA”) makes the “NFL Madden” football videogame, which allows a player to control virtual likenesses of past and present NFL players. While EA pays significant royalties to NFL for the use of current player’s likenesses, EA does not have a license to use the likenesses of former NFL players.  When the former players sued EA for violation of their publicity rights, EA attempted to raise defenses based on the First Amendment, which the court rejected.

One of the defenses was that the use of the players’ likenesses was “transformative,” adding significant creative elements that transform the game into something more than a celebrity imitation; however, as the game replicates physical characteristics of the players and shows the players doing what they are famous for (playing football), the court rejected this defense.  Likewise, the court also rejected EA’s statutory and common law “public interest” defenses, which are based on the protection of publishing information in the interest of the public, because “NFL Madden” is not a reference source or a collection of facts about football but rather a game.  Likewise, the court rejected EA’s argument that the Roger’s test, a test that limits trademark rights when First Amendment rights are involved, should be extended to publicity rights.  Finally, the court rejected EA’s argument that the use of the players’ likenesses was protected as being “incidental” because accurate depictions of the players are central to the game.

Interestingly enough, EA previously brought up most of these arguments, and lost, in a similar case that involved NCAA Football games.  EA recycled these arguments to preserve them for a rehearing by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals en banc or by the Supreme Court, and whether the arguments gain any traction further in the appeal process remains to be seen.