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Have US courts gone too far by expanding celebrities' 'right of publicity'

August 14, 2011 - Washington

A University at Buffalo Law School professor is questioning whether American courts have gone too far by expanding the legal rights and privileges celebrities can command over others using their names or likenesses.

Clearly, says UB Associate Professor of Law Mark Bartholomew, the courts have taken a more liberal interpretation when it comes to celebrities suing others for the use or even the implication of their names, images or voices.

This special legal privilege-known as the "right of publicity"-has expanded to what Bartholomew calls "very subtle celebrity references," and beyond the use of specific celebrity names or images.

Bartholomew says there are basic rights of free speech at issue.

"Celebrity references are important tools for speech or personal expression. They help us make important communicative points," said Bartholomew, an expert on intellectual property law.

"If I say someone has a John Wayne-type political style, you know what I am talking about. Celebrity names and images are also key items for personal development," he stated.

So the issue is a matter of balance, Bartholomew says. Recent decisions expanding the rights and lawsuit prowess of celebrities come at a cost.

The law is filled with easily recognized examples of this clash between celebrity rights and free speech, with elements and principles anyone from Super Bowl viewers to devotees of "OMG" and other celebrity websites would easily recognize, Bartholomew points out.

He makes his case in the article, "A Right is Born: Celebrity, Property and Postmodern Lawmaking," forthcoming in the Connecticut Law Review.


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