By Professor Jennifer Rothman
Today the Ninth Circuit will consider a First Amendment defense to Electronic Arts' (EA) use of former and current college players' identities in a popular video game. The case once again raises the issue of a conflict between the First Amendment and the right of publicity - a state law that protects the name, likeness and other indicia of identity of a person from being used without consent. Because this right limits what others can say, or put in a comic book, or a commercial or even a news broadcast, it raises a host of First Amendment issues. In particular, the district court held that EA had no First Amendment defense because the use of the players' identities was not transformative. The district court adopted a very narrow reading of transformativeness - one that appears to limit a First Amendment defense to circumstances in which a player's appearance and information is significantly altered, such as turning a player into a "half-human, half-worm," as one comic book did with the identities of two well-known musicians.
It is no surprise that such a narrow reading of transformativeness in the right of publicity context has caused uproar among major newspapers, television networks and movie studios. If courts do not consider the broader context of the use in a transformativeness analysis, then realistic portrayals and references to athletes, celebrities and anyone else may not receive First Amendment protection.
As a First Amendment matter, the transformativeness test seems ill-equipped to handle disputes between free speech and the right of publicity; the narrow gloss that the district court put on transformativeness sets a dangerous precedent that the Ninth Circuit will hopefully strike down. But whatever test the circuit ultimately adopts, it's not clear that EA has a great First Amendment defense. In contrast to the fantasy sports leagues, which are tied to the performance of actual players during a particular season, the EA video games do not need to be linked to particular players' identities. They may be more successful commercially if they are, but the functionality of the games does not depend on their realism.
This case on remand, however, may not ultimately turn on First Amendment protections. Although many of the briefs in the case focus on alternative First Amendment tests that could be used - other than transformativeness - to evaluate free speech limits on publicity rights, there are other significant conflicts in the case that have not yet been litigated. Related cases reveal that the college athletes signed their publicity rights over to the NCAA. Moreover, the NCAA owns the copyrights in the televised games. The NCAA therefore arguably had permission to license the use of the images and names of the college athletes. The legitimacy of the implicit and explicit assignments of publicity rights to the NCAA by college athletes will likely be the next chapter in this on-going and hotly contested dispute.