Publicity rights limited by free speech guarantees

In the well-known case of Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change v. American Heritage Products, 296 S.E.2d 697 (Ga. 1982), plaintiffs Coretta Scott King, administrator of Dr. King’s estate and Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change, and Motown Records, an assignee of the rights to several of Dr. King’s recorded speeches, sued defendants to stop them from manufacturing and selling plastic busts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Georgia Supreme Court recognized a “celebrity’s right to the exclusive use of his or her name and likeness” and rejected defendant’s contention that the First Amendment protected the right to manufacture and sell busts of public figures.

In contrast, the Sixth Circuit held in ETW Corp. v. Jireh Publishing, Inc., 332 F.3d 915 (6th Cir. 2003), that the First Amendment protected an artist’s right to sell prints of his painting that depicted Tiger Woods’s victory at the 1997 Masters Tournament. In a similar ruling, the Eleventh Circuit agreed held in Rosa & Raymond Parks Inst. for Self Dev. v. Target Corp., 812 F.3d 824 (11th Cir. 2016),, that Michigan publicity rights law could not stop a store from selling books, movies, and plaque honoring civil rights leader Rosa Parks because those activities were protected by the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.