Increases in right of publicity and defamation lawsuits raise concerns for entertainment lawyers

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by Meagan Martin

Some entertainment lawyers are expressing concerns about an increase in the number of right of publicity and defamation lawsuits filed against major media corporations. These attorneys say that the increase in these lawsuits – even if their claims are not substantiated in court – may raise intellectual property concerns that could make it more difficult for producers to create docudramas or programs about sports subjects.

Two lawsuits in particular have raised concerns among entertainment attorneys – one filed by the actress Olivia de Havilland against the television network FX, and the other filed over a proposed film about the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd. Another lawsuit, filed by the estate of Muhammad Ali against Twentieth Century Fox over a sports feature starring the deceased boxer that aired before the 2017 Super Bowl has also raised concerns for entertainment attorneys.

De Havilland’s lawsuit involves the portrayal of the 101-year old actress in the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan about the actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The lawsuit alleges that a portrayal of de Havilland in the series violates the actress’ privacy and publicity rights. The lawsuit also alleges that Catherine Zeta-Jones’s portrayal of de Havilland in Feud falsely gives viewers the impression that the elder actress was a hypocrite prone to self-promotional gossip. A judge in California ruled in 2017 that de Havilland’s lawsuit would be allowed to move forward to trial.

The Lynyrd Skynyrd lawsuit was filed by the group against its former drummer, Artimus Pyle, over his plans to make a film about a 1977 plane crash that killed several members of the Southern rock legends. The lawsuit alleges that Pyle’s plans to make a film about the band’s history violated a 1988 consent order that he and other members of the group signed. The order prohibited “exploitation of life story rights […] which purports to be a history of the ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ band, as opposed to the life story of the applicable individual.” In 2017, a New York judge issued a permanent injunction barring Pyle’s film because it violated the consent order.

Legal experts say that in recent years, courts across the U.S. have allowed right of publicity and defamation lawsuits to move forward to trial rather than throwing them out immediately. Entertainment attorneys say that this shift in the courts has created new dangers for producers who make documentaries or docudramas based on celebrities or other public figures.

Experts say that the Ali lawsuit also represents an attempt to expand publicity rights in cases involving media works involving celebrity figures. The case, which involves a promotional Super Bowl add using Ali’s likeness, attempts to expand already established publicity rights into the area of sports programming, which some attorneys feel should not be allowed.

Taken together, these cases may represent new challenges for producers looking to make a film, TV show, or other media works involving public figures. Most entertainment lawyers agree that it is rare for a public figure depicted in a film or TV show to like everything about how they are portrayed. While producers may wish to protect themselves from liability by obtaining clearances from public figures before filming begins, if the subject says no, experts say that the request could be used against the producers if litigation is filed over the work.

Intellectual Property Lawsuits Filed by Heygood, Orr & Pearson

Heygood, Orr & Pearson has also handled hundreds of intellectual property and commercial litigation cases, ranging in value from tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions. These cases have involved patent matters, claims for trademark infringement, and patent rights interference, and other claims filed on behalf of businesses of all sizes, ranging from small, local businesses to some of the largest multinational corporations in the world.

The ability of our law firm to successfully handle intellectual property cases is aided by the extensive trial experience possessed by our attorneys. Although technical knowledge and familiarity with laws regarding intellectual property is essential for attorneys handling these claims, there is no substitute for courtroom experience. The seasoned litigators at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have the track record to take on even the most complex cases and explain them in terms a jury can understand.

If you or your company requires legal representation in a copyright or intellectual property matter, contact Heygood, Orr & Pearson for a free legal consultation. You can reach our attorneys by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form and answering a few simple questions about your case to get started.