Monday, 30 April 2012

Upon Further Review of Hart v. Electronic Arts: New Article Proposes Partial Recovery for Partially Transformative Use

Back in September 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled in Hart v. Electronic Arts, 808 F. Supp. 2d 757 (D.N.J. 2011) that videogame publisher Electronic Arts may use college athletes' likenesses in its videogames because "there are sufficient elements of [Electronic Arts'] own expression ... that justify the conclusion that its use of the image is ... entitled to First Amendment protection." (Previously blogged about on Sports Law Blog here).

To many, the district court's decision in Hart was controversial, not only because it subordinates the rights of college athletes, but also because it expands what courts have traditionally defined as "transformative use" of one's likeness. For example, the court in Hart concluded that Electronic Arts' inclusion of“virtual stadiums, athletes, coaches, fans, sound effects, music andcommentary” makes use of player likenesses in NCAA Football "transformative." Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had previously held in Hilton v. Hallmark Cards that First Amendmentprotection applies only where “a product containing a celebrity’s likeness isso transformed that it has become primarily the defendant’s own expressionrather than the celebrity’s likeness.”

After several months of contemplating the district court's ruling in Hart v. Electronic Arts, I have released a draft of my upcoming Florida Law Review article, entitled "Closing the Free Speech Loophole: The Case for Protecting College Athletes' Likenesses in Commercial Videogames." In this article I argue that the partial transformation to a person's likeness via digital format -- whether it be by adding additional background elements, or by changing one's jersey number, height or hairdo -- should not be seen as a complete bar to recovery under right of publicity law.

Instead, I argue that a partial transformation to one's likeness should be deemed as a partially mitigating factor that may reduce the infringer's liability, but would not reduce it to zero. Thus, under this alternative assessment, college athletes whose likenesses appear in college football videogames would be entitled to partial recovery.

For those interested in further discussion of college athletes' publicity rights in commercial videogames and the idea of partial recovery for partial transformative use of one's likeness, a full copy of my upcoming law review article is available here.

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