Anti-Harassment Video Turned Appetizers Ad is Not False Endorsement
By Marie-Andrée Weiss
On 24 January 2017, Judge Abrams from the Southern District of New York (SDNY) granted a motion to dismiss from a video director who had been sued for violation of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act by an actress featured in an anti-street-harassment video he had directed, and which he later licensed for use in an TGI Friday’s appetizers advertisement. The case is Roberts v. Bliss, No. 15-CV-10167.
Plaintiff had been hired to appear in “10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman,” (the video) which was filmed by hidden camera to show the amount of catcalling directed at women walking on the streets. The actress was filmed for 10 hours walking in the streets of Manhattan, while men commented on her appearance and asked for her phone number. The footage was edited to a 1.56 minute video, which ended with a message urging viewers to donate to a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting street harassment, which had commissioned the video.
The video was directed and produced by Defendant Rob Bliss. He posted the video on YouTube in October 2014, and it went viral within 24 hours, receiving 10 million views in the first 24 hours of its posting. It has now been seen some 44 million times. After the video went viral, Bliss used it on his professional website to advertise his services. In February 2015, he licensed the video to a Colorado advertising agency, which used it to create two ads for TGI Friday’s, a fifteen-second ad and a thirty-second ad (the ad).
The ad starts with a black screen with the text, ”Nobody likes a catcaller,” and then shows clips of the video, with oversized pictures of new TGI Friday’s appetizers entirely covering Plaintiff’s body. This gives the impression that men on the street are expressing their admiration for mozzarella sticks or potato skins. The ad ends with another black screen which reads: “But who can blame someone for #AppCalling?”
Plaintiff sued Bliss, his company, and the non-profit which had originally commissioned the ad, claiming that the ad misleadingly implied that she had endorsed the ad and the appetizers, in violation of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, which forbids false endorsements. She also claimed that her right of publicity under New York law had been violated. Claims against the non-profit were later dropped.
The Section 43(a) false endorsement claim fails
Plaintiff claimed that she had not licensed her identity or persona to be used in the ads and would not have done so if offered to license it. She claimed that the ad violates Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, as it “depicted [her] persona and conveyed the false impression to a substantial group of viewers… that she had participated in, authorized or endorsed the [ad]” (Complaint, p. 12-13).
While right of publicity laws generally forbid using a person’s likeness for commercial purposes, the Lanham Act, which prohibits the unauthorized use of personal identity in endorsements or advertising, may also be used to that effect. Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) prohibits:
“us[ing] in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which… is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person, or… in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person’s goods, services, or commercial activities.”
Judge Abrams cited Burck v. Mars, Inc., a 2008 SDNY case, which enumerated the elements of a false endorsement claim under the Lanham Act, which require that “the defendant, (1) in commerce, (2) made a false or misleading representation of fact (3) in connection with goods or services (4) that is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of the goods or services”.
The ad did not use Plaintiff’s persona
Plaintiff did not claim that her name had been used, but instead her “persona,” which indeed could fall within the scope of Section 43(a), as its broad terms may indeed protect persona.
Judge Abrams examined what exactly is a “persona” and noted that it is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others.” He also quoted two 1992 Ninth Circuit cases recognizing persona. In Waits v. Frito Lay, a case about the unauthorized imitation of Tom Waits‘ voice, the court held that an artist’s distinctive voice and style was part of his persona. In White v. Samsung Elecs. Am. Inc., the court recognized that Vanna White had a right to her individual style and stance within the context of the set of Wheel of Fortune, where she had become famous; therefore, an ad could not use a robot in a blonde wig and pink dress on a set resembling Wheel of Fortune.
In this case, Judge Abrams was not convinced by Plaintiff’s claim “because neither she, nor any representation of her, her image, or her persona, appear in the TGI Friday’s advertisement, and the ad contains no false or misleading statement suggesting that she endorsed TGI Friday’s or its appetizers.” He noted further that “the superimposed renderings of appetizers cover [Plaintiff’s] entire body.”
Judge Abrams also noted that Plaintiff could not claim that she is so associated with her performance that the ad falsely implies that she endorsed the appetizers, because the Second Circuit held in Oliveira v. Frito Lays, Inc. that a signature performance, which is one in which a “widespread audience associates with the performing artist,” cannot be claimed as a trademark. In Oliveira, the Court found that Astrud Gilberto, the singer who first sang The Girl From Ipanema, could not claim her performance as a trademark and thus claim her rights had been infringed by the use of her performance in an ad without her permission. Judge Abrams noted that TGI Friday’s had purchased a license for the video, just as Frito Lays had purchased a license to use The Girl from Ipanema in the potato chip ad. Judge Abrams concluded that the ad did not falsely imply that Plaintiff endorsed the products, noting again that Plaintiff is not seen at all in the ads.
There is no likelihood of confusion as to Plaintiff’s sponsorship because the ad is parody
Judge Abrams also found that Plaintiff did not prove that consumers were likely to be confused as to her sponsorship of the ad. He quoted Burck, where the SDNY found that if a trademark is parodied, it may be “enough to result in no confusion under the statutory likelihood of confusion analysis.” Thus, if there is a parody, there is probably not consumer confusion. This had also been noted in January 2016 by Judge Furman of the SDNY in the Louis Vuitton v. My Other Bag case, which was recently affirmed by the Second Circuit (see here for a former discussion of the case in the TTLF newsletter). In that case, Judge Furman discussed the parody of a trademarks at length, and observed that “a parody clearly indicates to the ordinary observer that the defendant is not connected in any way with the owner of the… trademark.” In Bliss, Judge Abrams found the ad to be “a clear parody” of the video, which “in no way suggests that [Plaintiff] was championing the product used to mock the video for its own commercial benefit.”
The right of publicity claim was not addressed by the federal court
Since Judge Abrams dismissed the federal law claim which had justified federal jurisdiction, he declined to review the New York right of publicity claim.
New York’s right of publicity law is codified in New York Civil Rights Law, Section 50-5, and protects the right to privacy of a person if a “person, firm or corporation” uses her “name, portrait or picture” for “advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade… without having first obtained the written consent of such person”.
Would Plaintiff be more successful in her claim that her persona had been used without her permission in a New York court? As noted in a previous TTLF newsletter, some state’s right of publicity laws protect personas, such as the Alabama Right of Publicity Act which protects the right of publicity of individuals “in any Indicia of Identity,” and thus extend its protection to persona. This is not the case in New York.
Actress Lindsay Lohan recently argued that the protection of New York’s right of publicity includes her persona, which she claimed is composed of various elements such as a bikini, shoulder-length blonde hair, jewelry, a cell phone, sunglasses, a loose white top, and her signature ‘peace sign’ pose. he Appellate division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed her claim on 1 September 2016, because New York law only protects against unauthorized use of a person’ name, portrait, or picture— not a persona. However, in February 2017 the New York Court of Appeals accepted review of this case, and so may affirm or modify the narrow scope of the New York’s right of publicity.
Plaintiff has appealed her federal case and is likely to pursue her New York right of publicity case. Regardless, this case highlights the dangers of performing without a written contract. Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that she agreed to participate in the project without being compensated because the video had been presented to her as a public service announcement against street harassment. She received death and rape threats after appearing in the original video. This case brings in mind the Garcia v. Google case (discussed in a previous TTLF newsletter here) where an actress unsuccessfully claimed copyright in her performance. There are no neighboring rights provided to performers in U.S. law, unlike, say, French law, which grants performers a droit voisin,, a sort of property right over their interpretation of the work protected by copyright . In a statement, Plaintiff wrote that “the rights of all actors and other creative artists are increasingly threatened by those who profit commercially from their content without paying for it.” Should U.S. law give performers a neighboring right?