Clearances For Name & Likeness,
Location License, And Life-Story Rights In Motion Pictures And Television:
Written By New York Entertainment
Attorney And LLC Counsel
John J. Tormey III, Esq.
This article is not intended to, and does not constitute, legal advice with respect to your particular situation and fact pattern. Do secure counsel promptly, if you see any legal issue looming on the horizon which may affect your career or your rights. What applies in one context, may not apply to the next one. Make sure that you seek individualized legal advice as to any important matter pertaining to your career or your rights generally.
An entertainment lawyer handling production and rights motion picture work can spend much of his or her time fighting off detractors. One example? It is actually quite common for individuals who incidentally appear in a film or television shot, to later sue or otherwise claim upon the production company or network, asserting violations of their personal or proprietary rights. Even former employees and disgruntled ex-film crew members have been known to bring likeness claims against their former production paymasters for their incidental capture use in a shot, particularly if the production never signed them up to a name and likeness release in the first instance. It is also fairly common for those that believe their life-story in whole or in part has been used or referenced in a film or TV program, to put an adverse life-story rights claim on the motion picture project, even if the reference is but a passing reference. When such a claim is long on bluster but short on underlying legal merit, it is known as a nuisance claim, or “strike suit” if and once litigated.
Entertainment lawyers with a motion picture practice in the U.S. who have worked in Business Affairs or other in-house positions at entertainment companies, as well as most all entertainment lawyer litigators at outside law firms, will confirm all of this. I have served as both, prior to my solo law practice here in New York. One thing you learn quickly in this line of work, is that, while some claims are valid, more people claim more rights in more situations than actually have them. The same conclusion can be drawn even with respect to music rights claims by music publishers against film and TV productions – more claimants may ask for a piece of the pie than deserve one.
Film and television producers usually complain to their own entertainment lawyers that the commencement of such a rights nuisance claim is a sleazy thing to do, and the sign of someone watching too many motion pictures with too much time on his/her hands. Often true. Yet the film or TV production can be out time and money by the time that same complaint can be made to the person with the power to dismiss the claim – that is, the judge in the applicable court system. The film or TV producer’s feeling is understandable, unless the person incidentally depicted in the motion picture program is truly ridiculed or hurt in some way. But many Americans use litigation as a sport, and greed is a powerful motivator. There is an entire section of the motion picture entertainment insurance industry and an entire cadre of in-house entertainment lawyers devoted almost exclusively to extinguishing rights nuisance claims and strike suits, often but not always through what is known as errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. Without insurance, even a strike suit can sometimes close a company down.
The first thing an entertainment lawyer does when fielding
an adverse film or television claim – life-story, likeness, location,
or otherwise - is evaluate the apparent sense and sensibility of the
rights-complainant. So, let’s assume that the distinction has
already been made between an unstable unfortunate soul who thinks that
every successful Hollywood motion picture director is stealing his persona
and private thoughts with implanted electrodes and radio waves, on the
one hand – versus a person whose full name, likeness, and/or life-story
in whole or in part actually appears in an exhibited film or television
property. Let’s assume that the entertainment lawyer has reviewed
the claimant’s identity with his or her film or TV producer client,
and it turns out that the claimant has certain rights and is sane, stable,
sympathetic, aggrieved – and unsigned.
If the person’s name or likeness or life-story is recognizable in the film shot or in the television script, and no written “clearance” (to wit, signed “license”, “release”, or “agreement”) is in place, then the entertainment lawyer tells the producer of the film or TV production that rights may have been violated thereby and the motion picture production is that much more at risk.
In reply to the next likely question, the entertainment lawyer next opines that the dollar value at law of the risk or exposure to the rights violation claim cannot be accurately quantified, unless and until the issue is litigated between the aggrieved claimant on the one hand, and the film or TV company (or its insurer) on the other hand.
These decidedly-fuzzy motion picture law principles even
apply to film and television location licenses and related rights, albeit
under different legal theories than those corresponding to names, likenesses,
and life-stories. As an example, the entertainment lawyer might next
ask the motion picture producer to consider the Hollywood Chamber of
Commerce that historically has licensed uses of the famous “Hollywood”
sign located up on Beachwood Canyon. The Chamber has, at least in the
past, asserted rights to claim and sue for unauthorized uses and depictions
of the “Hollywood” sign itself - even though the sign is
comprised of but a bunch of letters, and rights to letters of alphabet
themselves should in theory be public domain and not owned by anyone.
In any event, reasonable minds in the film and TV businesses and elsewhere,
including as between entertainment lawyers themselves, have differed
in the past as to whether there is legal support for these types of
“location” rights claims in motion picture practice.
Rather than risk it, though, a careful film producer, or television producer or executive producer, usually “clears” depicted locations rather than pay the entertainment lawyer to tell him to clear those (possible) rights post facto after the film or TV project is in the can - or else the producer moves the motion picture shot to a different location if the location license rights “clearance” is too expensive. This is particularly true of the film or TV executive that knows he or she must keep the company’s errors and omissions (E&O) insurance carrier happy and motivated to provide and not cancel coverage. Much of an entertainment lawyer’s detractor-fighting discussed above, includes the creation of alliances with the E&O carriers and their counsel. E&O carrier counsel are sometimes even more rights-sensitive and risk-averse than the motion picture studio or television network Business Affairs in-house counsel are, themselves.
Sure, a film or television producer - particularly one without an in-house or other entertainment lawyer to advise him/her, or an E&O carrier to chastise him/her - can try and fly under the radar on the “incidental use” issue, and hope no rights-violation claims occur. Many producers in fact do try this. But seemingly-incidental shots and uses cannot necessarily be
safely assumed to be immune from rights claims. And Murphy’s Law will tell you that someone whose life-story truly appears in a picture in whole or substantial part, will always see it and recognize it.
Some of these seemingly-innocuous motion picture uses can in fact turn out to be legally-actionable, and there are plenty plaintiff-side entertainment lawyer litigators out there who seem to be hungry to take on such causes. Even if not legally-actionable, a nuisance claim or lawsuit based on location, likeness, or life-story rights against a film or TV company can still be predicated upon an incidental-shot use in a motion picture, as a practical matter. Even with no supporting legal merit to it, it can still become an expensive headache. In other words, the law is what you read in the casebooks and statutes, but life is what happens out on the street, and rights are often what even undeserving allege until extinguished in a litigation.
Moreover, most of the good film and TV rights and “clearance” stories, though perhaps bandied-about as anonymous and sanitized hypotheticals, never make it to the casebooks.
Most of these types of motion picture rights and clearance claims are never litigated, much less revealed by the publication of judicial opinions thereafter. From a film or TV entertainment lawyer defense counsel’s perspective, it is often worth paying the motion picture rights claimant US$2,500 or more, just to go away. Oftentimes, the deductible on the errors and omissions (“E&O”) insurance policy for a film can be at least US$10,000. Sometimes the deductible is even more. (Life-story encroachments and celebrity likeness rights violations can be far more expensive). Therefore, in practice, in the case of an incidental use “passing shot”, the film or TV company, with or without its entertainment lawyer’s advice, may simply pay the rights claimant.
The producer may elect to do this rather than (rightfully or wrongfully) even report the claim to the E&O insurance carrier, much less seek coverage on it. Moreover, the E&O carrier will typically not defend against the motion picture rights claim and staff it up with its own defense-counsel entertainment lawyers, unless and until the suit is actually commenced or filed. So it is often the film or TV producer’s or distributor’s exclusive headache unless and until the lawsuit is filed.
The New York statute on point for those in the film and
television industries and other media and entertainment industries as
well, is New York Civil Rights Law, Sections 50 and 51, a statutory
lattice which should be deemed relevant to both name & likeness
and life-story rights matters:
New York Civil Rights Law Section 50: The Right To Control One's Name And Likeness.
To View New York Civil Rights Law Section 50, Please Click Here.
New York Civil Rights Law Section 51: The Right To Control One's Name And Likeness.
To View New York Civil Rights Law Section 51, Please Click Here.
California Civil Code Section 3344: The Right To Control One's Name And Likeness.
To View California Civil Code Section 3344, Click Here.
If anyone thinks that an individual can’t sue for an unauthorized use of his or her likeness in a motion picture, then that skeptic should read that statute and the cases decided under it. California (Civil Code Section 3344) and most other American states have law similar to New York’s Civil Rights Law 50/51, on the books.
“50/51” and “3344”, are the bread and butter of entertainment lawyers. A private person usually sues a film or TV company on this type of likeness claim, under his or her “right of privacy”, whereas a celebrity usually sues the motion picture company on this type of likeness claim under his or her “right of publicity”. And the best way to evaluate a life-story rights claim is to navigate through a morass of prior case law, or else, better yet, have your entertainment lawyer do it for you.
It’s rough out there. One should obtain signed written rights clearances from those whose names, likenesses, or life-stories recognizably appear in one’s motion picture or TV production. Even a location-depiction claim could tie up a film or television shoot in a worst-case scenario, including that familiar case that many entertainment lawyers have dealt with on an incoming cell phone call when the location-landlord shows up on set 15 minutes before cameras roll and demands more money. When that happens, count your blessings, though. After all, the film likeness rights claimant or life-story rights claimant often doesn’t approach the production company until after the film is in theatrical release, when it is too late to cut the film’s negative.
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My practice as a film lawyer and media, publishing,
and entertainment attorney includes film and television rights, life-story
rights, clearances, location agreements, licensing matters, and other
aspects of motion picture development, production, exhibition, and
distribution. If you have questions about legal issues which affect
your career, and require representation, please contact me:
Law Office of John J. Tormey III, Esq.
John J. Tormey III, PLLC
1324 Lexington Avenue, PMB 188
New York, NY 10128 USA
(212) 410-4142 (phone)
(212) 410-2380 (fax)