In the latest installment in the Call of Duty franchise, Black Ops II, video game maker Activision took the bold step of moving away from the traditional terrorist or Nazi villain in favor of Former Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega. Ousted from power in 1989, Noriega has remained relatively quiet since his release from prison three years ago. Now, Noriega has come out of hiding to sue Activision, and their parent company, Blizzard Entertainment for the Unauthorized Use of His Name and Likeness, also known as the Right of Publicity. Noriega says that the game falsely portrays him as a “kidnapper, murderer, and an enemy of the state for the purpose of increasing sales, at his expense.
The Right of Publicity: an Increasingly Popular Legal Tactic
A Right of Publicity claim has been increasingly popular among celebrities wishing to push back on exploitation of their popularity. Just this past July, Lindsay Lohan sued Take-Two Interactive Inc. and its parent company, Rockstar Games, for creating a character in “Grand Theft Auto V” based on her persona, or so she claims. As well, several college NCAA players reached a $40-million settlement with Electronic Arts for the use of their likenesses. With COD Black Ops II generating over $1 billion in sales within the first two weeks of its release, it’s not hard to see why Noriega and his attorney see dollar signs.
Can Noriega Win This Lawsuit?
It may seem ridiculous that a Dictator can sue for using his likeness, but does that mean that a Dictator’s persona is in the public
domain, available for anyone to use? If so, who makes that decision and what level of criminality is required fort someone to lose their Right of Publicity? Does the rule apply to any criminal or only terrorists and dictators?
Those questions are not easily answered so in that respect; Noriega’s case has merit. But can he win?
To begin any legal analysis, we must first look at the elements required to win a cause of action such as the Right of Publicity. Each state may have slightly different elements, but in California, where Noriega filed his case, the elements are:
- use of a person’s identity;
- appropriated a person’s name and likeness for commercial or other advantages;
- Lack of permission for the use
- and the plaintiff was injured by the use.
That’s it. There is nothing about being a dictator, a criminal, or any other type of person. So can Noriega prove them? Well, 1,2, and 3 don’t seem particularly difficult. Noriega is clearly recognizable in the game, which is a commercial product, and Noriega never gave Activision his permission. Injury however is another matter.
Did Activision Harm Noriega?
There are two types of harm the court will review. The first is financial harm or economic loss. Since a person has the right to control products attached to his name, Noriega might be entitled to the profits attributed to the use of his name. Or, if Noriega can show he lost a business opportunity due to Black Ops II, he could recover for that loss. For example, Noriega will try to recover the value of the licensing fee he would have required for the use of his likeness. But what would be the price, if any, for a former criminal Dictator?
Second, the court may also take into account injury to peace, happiness, and feelings, as well as injury to goodwill, professional standing, and future publicity value. Noriega will have a hard time convincing a Judge or jury that Black Ops II harmed his professional standing and happiness?
It’s too early to know how this case will play out, but it is unlikely to go Noriega’s way. As much as Justices must follow the letter of the law, there is quite a bit of leeway in its spelling. The Judge in this case will not want to be remembered for requiring video game makers (and maybe even Film studios), to pay licensing fees to former dictators. But if Noriega’s lawyers can prove the required elements, the Judge may have no choice.
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