Can I Use The Photographs? (Part 3)

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These days anyone with a cell phone is a photographer and the internet is flooded with photos of celebrities that go “viral” on social media. A photograph of a star wearing your garment, carrying your accessory or holding your shopping bag can be of tremendous value to your brand. Indeed, brands shower celebrities with gift items for the promotional value in their use. And contracts to promote brands are lucrative for the celebrities and those who serve as matchmakers. So it is very tempting to copy photos found on the internet to your website, Facebook page or ad. But if you do, you may run afoul of what has been variously described as the right of privacy or the right of publicity.

There is no uniform national law which protects an individual from unwanted exploitation of their name or image. Each state, however, has afforded protection, either by statute or as a matter of judge made “common law”, and sometimes by both. New York has long prohibited the use of the name or likeness of every living person—celebrity or not—for purposes of “advertising or trade”. While the New York statute offers no protection against the use of the image of a deceased person, even if a celebrity, other states do protect celebrities against commercialization for extended periods after death.

Use of a name or likeness for non-commercial purposes, however, is not prohibited. Because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, newspapers, magazines and even TMZ are free to report the comings and goings of stars, and also to publish that embarrassing photo of you at a Giants game, with impunity. Your daughter can tweet her cell LadyGaga-InSunglassesphone photo of Britney Spears walking on the street without make-up or post-it to Facebook, and like-minded celebrity-obsessed fans then can circulate it freely. These uses are not considered uses for purposes of advertising or trade and so are protected free speech.

But what of a business seeking to use a celebrity image on its website, Facebook page or other social media channels? Is this protected free speech, or is it instead a violation of the right of privacy or publicity? On the one hand, the use of the image in a paid advertisement is clearly a violation of the right of privacy and publicity, including under the New York statute. And use of the image on merchandise, even if given away for promotional purposes, is also a clear violation which can lead to punitive damages and not merely compensatory damages.

Closer questions are presented by posting a photo on your own website. A website is a business promotional tool and can be seen as an advertising use. But websites can also report news and events relating to the business, and truthfully communicating newsworthy events is behavior protected by the First Amendment. Where celebrities are seen and what they are wearing is considered legitimate subjects of public interest meriting First Amendment protection. Does this mean that if your daughter can tweet her photo of Britney Spears, you can retweet it and point out she’s wearing the hat and scarf you sell? On this question the judicial authorities have not yet spoken. Last year Katherine Heigl sued Duane Reade under the New York statute, for tweeting a photograph of her carrying a Duane Reade shopping bag. The litigation was resolved privately without a court addressing the legal issue. While it is sorely tempting to opine that this sort of communication of truthful facts should not be actionable, the burden and expense of defending against such a claim and the damages to which you could be exposed counsel caution.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

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For a recent article by New York Times reporters Sydney Ember and Rachel Abrams on brands and their use, sometimes without permission, of consumers’ own photographs posted on social media showcasing branded items, click here.


Is the Country of Origin Labeling Requirement Unconstitutional?

ClothingLabel-MadeChinaThe constitutional rights of businesses are hot topics. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberty, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, that benefits commercial entities as well as individuals. The right to spend unlimited money to support the election or defeat of particular candidates for office derives from the right to freedom of speech. But does the same First Amendment right protect businesses from being compelled by government regulations to speak on matters as to which they would prefer not to comment, whether or not they are “controversial” or “political”? Is there a freedom to refrain from speaking?

If you think this question has nothing to do with fashion, you would be wrong. Every manufacturer in the fashion and accessory business labels its products with their “country of origin”, guided by detailed regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission. Decisions in two recent cases, which have nothing to do with fashion, but everything to do with government regulations compelling businesses to speak on the source of their products, suggest that the “country of origin” regulatory scheme for the fashion industry may be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

A federal statute requires country of origin labeling for meat to address the country where the animal was born, raised or slaughtered. New rules for implementing the statute were promulgated in 2013 to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling on a complaint from Mexico and Canada, requiring greater specificity in describing separately the country where each of these events in the animal’s life occurred. A group of trade associations, feedlot operators and meat processors filed suit to enjoin the rules, claiming they violated the First Amendment. The argument was rejected by a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, holding that the First Amendment did not bar the government from compelling factual speech on a non-controversial matter that might be of interest to consumers. The full court, however, voted to hear the case anew before all eleven judges of the court. The parties were directed to address the scope of First Amendment protection for mandatory disclosure of purely factual and non-controversial commercial information, compelled for reasons other than preventing consumer deception.

The outcome of this review may be foreshadowed by the same court’s decision on April 14, 2014, striking down Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that required public companies to disclose whether they used “conflict minerals” (minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo used by warring factions to finance their operations) in products they marketed or manufactured. The three judge panel found that it was unconstitutional to compel speech in the absence of a need to prevent consumer deception.

So one might well ask whether it is unconstitutional to compel apparel manufacturers to say anything about the subject when they are not marketing goods based on the country of origin. What purpose does it serve and do consumers need the information?

Credit: Helene M. Freeman