Rights of Publicity and Trademark Case – «Bogart v. Burberry» Raises Important Issues That Can Affect Advertising and Other Commercial or «Mixed» Uses Of Celebrity Images
A new and potentially very important rights of publicity and trademark battle is currently being fought in federal courts on both coasts – in California and New York. The outcome of the case, «Bogart LLC v. Burberry, PLC, et. al.«, can affect how (and whether) parties are able to use celebrity images, names or references in accurate, albeit commercial materials.
In an effort to show and promote the evolution and enduring vitality of its 156-year-old brand, Burberry licensed an image from the movie Casablanca from Corbis (a well-known image copyright licensing entity) for use in an illustrated «timeline» of the Burberry brand. The image is from the closing scene of the film and it shows Humphrey Bogart wearing a Burberry trench coat. Burberry placed the following, accurate description under the picture: “Humphrey Bogart, wearing a Burberry trench coat in the final scene of Casablanca in 1942.” However, when Burberry published the illustrated timeline, Humphrey Bogart’s estate filed a complaint which included trademark and rights of publicity allegations (and a number of related claims). In essence, in the rights of publicity claim, the Bogart estate alleges that Burberry inappropriately used and gained commercial benefit from the image of Bogart. Burberry, on the other hand, is relying on its copyright license to the image as sufficient in light of the fact that the timeline and image of Bogart are historically accurate and, according to Burberry, protected expression under the First Amendment. Related false endorsement and trademark claims can be expected to follow along the same lines of reasoning.
Currently, Burberry is seeking to have Bogart’s California complaint dismissed or stayed and to have the matter resolved in a New York court in which Burberry filed a declaratory judgment complaint after initial contacts between the parties failed to produce a settlement. The chief reason for the sought-after transfer is given as «convenience» and conservation of judicial resources (along with an odd jurisdictional argument) but it is also likely that Burberry may be seeking the benefit of substantive differences in the pertinent laws of the two jurisdictions.
In any case, we will watch this case carefully as it can very significantly impact determination on whether and how celebrity images, names and other identifying features can be used in materials that are historically accurate but also have an advertisement component and provide commercial benefits for the third-party user.