Tween Pop Stars, Cartoon Animals, Parody, and the Right of Publicity

At Law of the Game, we pride ourselves on being fans of popular culture, games, and terrible puns. Imagine our glee when the following story emerged. Justin Bieber’s legal team is embroiled in a lawsuit with app developer RC3 over their game Joustin’ Beaver. The app features JB, a cartoon beaver with a stylish shag haircut and purple hooded sweatshirt. Players fight off greedy “Phot-Hogs” with a lance as they travel downstream signing “Otter-graphs.” Bieber’s lawyers sent RC3 a cease and desist, claiming they had violated the pop star’s right of publicity by using his name and likeness in the game. In response, RC3 has filed suit in the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida. They are seeking declaratory judgment that their game does not infringe on Bieber’s rights, and that the app is protected as parody. To get a better idea of what is going on we will discuss the right of publicity, the Lanham Act, parody, and then examine the facts of the case.

The right of publicity will typically arise in cases involving advertising or merchandising. It is “the right of every individual to control any commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or some other identifying aspect of identity,” limited by the bounds of the First Amendment. The image of a celebrity can be enormously valuable. Many companies will pay top dollar for a celebrity to associate themselves with their product. The right of publicity exists to stop people from getting a free ride on a celebrity’s name. It is important to remember there is no federal right of publicity. Nineteen states currently recognize it, although the level of protection varies. One of the strongest states is California: their Celebrities Rights Act extends it to seventy years after the death of the individual in question.

A great deal of the jurisprudence on the issue can be traced back to Elvis. After his death, mountains of “commemorative” merchandise appeared, but none of it had his estate’s endorsement. So, some courts began to acknowledge that letting places like the Franklin Mint pay bills using Elvis’s face was not fair. This has come up in the gamespace before, in cases involving Kurt Cobain in Guitar Hero 5 and the flash games involving politicians. As usual, there is no hard and fast rule for how these suits play out, they are fact specific. Mark had a good summary of the right of publicity. Think of it like a trademark for a famous person’s likeness.

Related to this is the Lanham Act, which codifies our national standards for trademark. Trademarks can be infringed when someone creates a mark that is the same or confusingly similar. This hinges on the “likelihood of confusion,” or whether a consumer could see the allegedly infringing mark and assume the products or services are from the trademark owner. These cases will typically involve similar goods. For example, if you put an Apple logo on your laptops hoping they will sell faster, that is infringing.

Trademarks can also be diluted. Dilution happens when someone uses a mark “in a way that would lessen its uniqueness.” Trademark dilution cases often involve unrelated goods. Considering our Apple example, this could happen if someone placed an Apple logo on a placemat. Not a related product, but still a case of someone attempting to gain commercial benefit from associating with a famous mark. The Lanham Act arose in the gamespace during 2009’s James “Jim” Brown v. Electronic Arts, Inc.. Jim Brown sued EA in the Central District of California for creating a player using his likeness in the Madden series. The court held that EA’s rights under the First Amendment “immunized” them to liability.

What about parody? Parody in trademark is fundamentally different from it in copyright. The elements are an original work, famous and known to the target audience, being used to create a new original work, but only taking so much of the source as to bring to mind the original. (You can read more about it here.) A useful way to think about it is that trademark infringement and parody are branches from the same tree. Both bring to mind a separate work and draw on the fame of that famous mark to be identifiable. What makes parody different than infringement is it takes an extra step to distinguish itself from the original. A successful attempt at trademark parody will go so far as to leave no doubt that it is a humorous take on a famous trademark. This standard gives people room to create humorous takes on trademarks, but the law also works to keep in mind the integrity of a mark and not let the parody go too far. When a parody starts inserting elements that could be considered scandalous, anyone trying to protect their trademark has a much stronger case.

Applying this web of rights and limitations to the case of Joustin’ Beaver is tricky. Taking Bieber’s perspective into account, he certainly has rights of publicity and an interest in maintaining some kind of control over his image. He is an international celebrity, and his career demonstrates that his name has value. Florida (where RC3 filed suit) does indeed have a right of publicity statute. You might remember that Lindsay Lohan sued E*TRADE for violating her right of privacy (New York’s right of publicity) and got the company to settle.

This segues into the Lanham Act issues of trademark. The offending beaver certainly uses elements of Bieber’s signature outfit (although he appears to have given up the bangs) so the outcome could depend on whether a court looks at the game and believes consumers could be misled into purchasing the game thinking that Bieber signed off on it. Considering dilution, it does not appear Bieber is attempting to market games using his likeness, so if infringement fails, his legal team could argue the game lessens the unique quality of his brand. We are still not far from filing, so it is tough to say where this will head. Maybe the suit could have been avoided entirely by placing a disclaimer on the game. (This is how Elvis impersonators can imitate the King without paying his estate.) That option could still be there, but considering how famous this case has become, it may be beyond an amicable solution.

So what about Joustin’ Beaver as trademark parody? The game certainly creates an immediate association with Bieber, evoking his famous persona. However, and this may depend on your appetite for puns, there is a solid argument to say the game goes far enough to be a humorous riff on Justin’s worldwide fame. The mop-topped beaver does bring to mind his Canadian counterpart, but it is arguable that it goes just far enough, and does not create confusion. It does not use any of his songs or other intellectual property. The game also does itself a favor by being non-controversial. There are no lascivious or scandalous elements…it is just a simple app where a beaver rides a raft down the river. This could turn on whether the court believes consumers are likely to be confused, but it seems that RC3 has a fairly strong argument here for trademark parody.

This type of celebrity-based game is not a big genre. The outcome of this case could give developers an estimate of the leeway allowed when incorporating a celebrity into their work. If RC3 can get judgment in their favor, we might see an uptick in these apps. Regardless of how this turns out, it is hard to believe this will ever be a substantial part of the industry. What makes a game truly valuable is its ability to build its own brand, not piggy back off of someone else’s. You might gain immediate recognition by association with someone or something famous, but whatever you create will always be tied to them. One of the most exciting things about the Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and mobile game markets has been the explosion of titles made by independent developers. One of the all time successes, Angry Birds, took game mechanics we have seen before but created a unique world so popular it became a Halloween costume. For a lasting presence in this industry, that will always be the way to go.

Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A third year student at George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.

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About Zack Bastian

Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A a recent graduate of George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.

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