“Right of Publicity” Tort Actions.

In Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co.,1331 the Court held unprotected by the First Amendment a broadcast of a video tape of the “entire act” of a “human cannonball” in the context of the performer’s suit for damages against the company for having “appropriated” his act, thereby injuring his right to the publicity value of his performance. The Court emphasized two differences between the legal action permitted here and the legal actions found unprotected or not fully protected in defamation and other privacy-type suits. First, the interest sought to be protected was, rather than a party’s right to his reputation and freedom from mental distress, the right of the performer to remuneration for putting on his act. Second, the other torts if permitted decreased the information that would be made available to the public, whereas permitting this tort action would have an impact only on “who gets to do the publishing.”1332 In both respects, the tort action was analogous to patent and copyright laws in that both provide an economic incentive to persons to make the investment required to produce a performance of interest to the public.1333

Footnotes

1331
433 U.S. 562 (1977). The “right of publicity” tort is conceptually related to one of the privacy strands: “appropriation” of one’s name or likeness for commercial purposes. Id. at 569–72. Justices Powell, Brennan, and Marshall dissented, finding the broadcast protected, id. at 579, and Justice Stevens dissented on other grounds. Id. at 582. back
1332
433 U.S. at 573–74. Plaintiff was not seeking to bar the broadcast but rather to be paid for the value he lost through the broadcasting. back
1333
433 U.S. at 576–78. This discussion is the closest the Court has come in considering how copyright laws in particular are to be reconciled with the First Amendment. The Court emphasizes that copyright laws encourage the production of work for the public’s benefit. back