FAN 101 (First Amendment News) Levine & Wermiel on First Amendment & Right of Publicity — Using Justices’ Papers to Understand Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co.
Zacchini offers little or no guidance in cases involving mere depictions of individuals, as opposed to appropriation of their actual performances in full. — Paul M. Smith (cert. petition in Electronic Arts v. Davis)
Nothing in the Court’s opinion [in Zucchini] suggested that its analysis would have been different had the news broadcast been limited to a five- or ten- second excerpt . . . . — Brian D. Henri (brief in opposition in Electronic Arts v. Davis)
First they started with a law review article: “The Landmark that Wasn’t: A First Amendment Play in Five Acts,” Wash. L. Rev. (2013), which gave rise to several commentaries.
Then came a book: The Progeny: Justice William J. Brennan’s Fight to Preserve the Legacy of New York Times v. Sullivan (2014). Now comes their latest work, “The Court & the Cannonball: An Inside Look,” American U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016).
In their latest work, Levine ( a seasoned media law lawyer & casebook author) teams up once again with Wermiel (law professor, Brennan Biographer & former WSJ reporter) to dig up the inside history of another First Amendment case — this time Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. (1977), a 5-4 ruling.
→ The Facts: In 1972, Hugo Zucchini performed as a “human cannonball” at the Geauga County Fair in Burton, Ohio. In his act, Zucchini was shot out of a cannon and into a net 200 feet away. His performance lasted 15 seconds. During one of these performances, a Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. freelance reporter attended the fair, replete with a movie camera. Petitioner noticed the reporter and asked him not to film the performance. Respondent honored the request that day but returned the following day and videoed the entire act. This 15-second film clip was shown on the evening news, together with favorable commentary. Petitioner brought a tort action (right of publicity) for damages and Respondent raised a First Amendment defense, among other things.
→ See “Zucchini: Human Cannonball” documentary trailer
→ The issue in the case was: Do the First and Fourteenth Amendments immunize the Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. from damages for its alleged infringement of an entertainer’s state-law right of publicity?
→ The Supreme Court Lawyers:
- John G. Lancione argued the cause and filed a brief for Petitioner.
- Ezra K. Bryan argued the cause for Respondent.
→ Enter Levine & Wermiel: Here are a few excerpts from their forthcoming article:
“Although the 1977 ruling is often cited as holding that the right of publicity tort survives constitutional scrutiny under the First Amendment, an examination of the case and of the Supreme Court Justices’ available papers shows that the Court did not view the case as presenting the type of claim that has become prevalent today.”
“For the Supreme Court, the internal papers indicate the case was about the right of a performer/producer to control the display of his entire act. The Court was not focused on the more contemporary claim that athletes, celebrities, and others have a right to control the use by anyone else, especially for commercial purposes, of their name or their visual image. Nor did the Court’s ruling address the First Amendment issue raised in contemporary cases when a name or likeness is used in a creative work or other public communication. . . . .”
→ Conclusion: “If nothing else, the record of the Court’s deliberations in Zacchini appears to support the view that that decision does not purport to speak to the viability of a First Amendment-based defense to the kind of “right of publicity” claims asserted by contemporary plaintiffs seeking compensation for the use of their name, likeness, or even their performance, in the context of a video game, sporting event, news report or other creative work produced by someone else. To the contrary, the Court’s deliberations in Zacchini suggest that, at least in contexts where the asserted “right of publicity” is not akin to a claim for common law copyright, there is no basis to depart from traditional modes of First Amendment analysis and engage instead in the kind of ad-hoc balancing of state-created and constitutional rights . . .”
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