Publicity Rights & Commercial Speech

Yes, I’m about to write about a case involving NFL Films, which has approximately nothing to do with lawyer advertising.  But it’s a nice example of the relatively narrow parameters of the commercial speech doctrine.

And repeat along with me, lawyers: only your commercial speech can be regulated by the state bar advertising rules.  If you’re staying non-commercial, you don’t have to worry about whether the ad rules apply to your tweeting or Facebook updates.

In our NFL Films example, three former players sued, claiming that NFL Film compilations of old game highlights violated their rights of publicity.  What’s important about the Federal District Court’s dismissal of the case on summary judgment is its detailed discussion of these two principles:

1) Publicity rights claims (which, you might have gathered, I loathe) can only survive if the underlying communication is commercial speech; and

2) Commercial speech, while continuing to evade a bright-line definition, must contain some meaningful combination of economic motive, advertising format and reference to a specific product.

The decision reiterates that economic motive alone is NEVER sufficient to render speech “commercial.”  It also notes that the fact that the films are all about the NFL and its players does not make them a form of “image advertising,” but rather expressive products in their own right.

All in all, a good case to remind us of the limited scope of commercial speech, and the fact that free expression needn’t face the publicity rights tollbooth just because it features people whose images have commercial value.

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